Scale and sensation fill the screen in this ground-breaking epic that has to be seen to be believed
Director: DW Griffith
Cast: Mae Marsh (The Dear One), Robert Harron (The Boy), Constance Talmadge (The Mountain Girl), Alfred Paget (Prince Belshazzar), Bessie Love (The Bride of Cana), Walter Long (The Musketeer of the Slums), Howard Gaye (Jesus Christ), Lillian Langdon (The Virgin Mary), Frank Bennett (Charles IX), Josephine Crowell (Catherine de Medici), WE Lawrence (Hendi de Navarre), Lillian Gish (Woman Who Rocks the Cradle)
Even today I’m not sure there is anything like it. (Perhaps only the bizarrely OTT Cloud Atlas gets anywhere near it). DW Griffith’s follow-up to his (now infamous) smash-hit success The Birth of a Nation would not just be a melodrama with a social conscience (as he originally planned). Instead, it would be a sweeping epic that have as its theme humanity itself. Intolerance (captioned “Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages”) would intercut four timelines simultaneously, each showing how prejudice, envy, and rage had shattered lives throughout the history of mankind.
Griffith wanted to make the biggest film ever. The sort of sweeping spectacle that would confine all other competitors to the dustbin of history and cement himself as the new media’s master visionary. Intolerance is certainly that, a film of dizzying technical and narrative scale. Never before had a film thematically intercut between four unlinked but complementary timelines. Nothing links these stories other than theme: all four play out in parallel, events in one reflected in another. Essentially, it’s like a massive book of fables where all the pages have been cut out, reorganised and handed back to you.
Intolerance started life as The Mother and the Law. This social-issue drama followed a young couple – the Dear One (Mae Marsh) and the Boy (Robert Harron) – forced to flee their factory community for the big city, after the brutal crushing of a strike. There, the Boy is sucked into the circle of a local gangster The Musketeer of the Slums (Walter Long). He renounces it all for love, before he is framed for theft and imprisoned. Then the couple are stripped of their baby and he is arrested again for the murder of the gangster (actually done by his moll). Will the sentence be revoked?
This is still the backbone – and takes up the most of the film’s runtime. But the one thing it didn’t really have is spectacle. A lot of it happens in rooms (bar a last-minute train and car chase). As well as expanding the film’s scope, Griffith also wanted to dial up the scale. Intercut with this are three grandiose historical narratives. In the largest, Griffith had the whole of Babylon rebuilt just so he could film its fall (after betrayal from the priests), despite the struggles of the Mountain Girl (Constance Talmadge) who is in-love-from-afar with Prince Belshazzar (Alfred Paget). We also get the St Bartholomew Day’s Massacre of 1572, as French Catholics butchered their Protestant neighbours. And finally, just to dial up the import, we get the last days of Jesus Christ.
The scale of it! The sets of Babylon have to be seen to be believed. Huge, towering structures so large they dwarf elephants and the thousands of extras thrown in for scale. The camera pans slowly up to stress their gigantism and zooms in slowly in tracking shots to pick out a specific face among thousands. The siege of Babylon plays out like a real military action: armies of extras play out a choreographed battle on multiple levels of the walls while elephants push siege engines into place. Some nifty special effects allow on-screen beheadings and for us to see swords, arrows and spears plunge into bodies. It’s genuinely exciting and influenced every siege you’ve seen on film since.
This scale isn’t just restricted to Babylon. The modern plotline brilliantly recreates strike action by the masses, including a brutal put-down by private and government forces. Questing for a late pardon for her husband (who is literally walking towards the gallows while they do), the Dear One and a kindly policeman hop into the fastest car they can find to chase down the Governor’s train. In 1572, the streets of Paris are skilfully recreated – as are the grand palaces – and the action of the massacre is shot with an intense, Bruegelesque immersion. Jesus is mocked by a large crowd as he drags his cross through the streets before being crucified on a bloody-sky kissed hill with flashes of terrifying red lightening.
The huge scale is also carried across in Griffith’s narrative. This was intended as important film-making with a capital I. Griffith’s film is in places surprisingly anti-authoritarian and firmly on the side of the little guy. The modern strike is caused by a factory wage cut. Why? Because more money is needed for the firm’s charity work and it needs to come from somewhere. The charity workers are, to a woman, shown as judgemental, smug and causing more harm than good from their arrogant assertion that they know best. Homes are broken up, jobs are sacrificed and mothers judged “not good enough” separated from their children. All in the name of a moral crusade that’s more focused on prohibition than protection.
In Babylon, the priests of Bel are weasily, bitter, power-hungry figures, furious at the arrival of the new female God Ishtar, selling the city out to the barbarian hordes to preserve the old religion. The French court are certain the only way to guarantee peace (but really their own positions against the Hugenout faction) is to kill them all. Jesus’ presence is met with stern-faced priests wondering what they can do to get shot of this trouble-maker. We are always invited to sympathise with humble, simple people who want to make their own choices: Brown Eyes (Margery Wilson), a Hugenout daughter hoping to marry, the boisterous Mountain Girl, the loving Dear One and the Boy.
To keep this feeling like a universal fable of hope, names are kept as non-specific as these. Small human moments abound. Brown Eyes is as giddy as schoolgirl on the day before her wedding. Henry IV weeps and nearly vomits after being brow-beaten into ordering the massacre. The Mountain Girl – dragged to a market fair for her obstinacy – decides the best way to put off husbands is to chow down on onions. The Dear One and the Boy go on a charming date, at the end of which she pleads for the strength of character to resist the temptation to let him into her flat before they are married. It’s these little beats of humanity that help sustain the scale.
Intolerance is connected together with a series of captions – frequently badly-written and pretentious (e.g. “The loom of fate wove death for the father”) – and via a recurring image of a woman rocking a cradle, which I think represents the circle of life. The editing between the storylines is masterful though and the film’s pace and structure is generally so well maintained that your understanding of when and where we are is never challenged for a moment.
There have been claims Griffith’s more human epic was a correction to his Birth of the Nation. But that’s to misunderstand the sort of era Griffith came from. In his Victorian background, it was in no-way a contradiction for a man to be both a white supremacist and a sentimental liberal. Griffith believed the South were victims of the Civil War and the ‘unjust’ Reconstruction and felt Intolerance was a logical continuation of that theme. A few of his prejudices are on show here anyway. The only black faces are sinister heavies among the ‘barbarians’ attacking Babylon. Henry of Navarre is a limp-wristed sissy. The female reformers are all ugly harridans (the caption even tells us “When women cease to attract men they often turn to reform as a second choice”). Intolerance is an interesting reminder that a director we now think of today as American cinema’s leading racist was that and a man who passionately believed in social justice. Contradiction is the most human quality we have.
There may be a little too much in Intolerance considering its crushing run-time (the Jesus scenes could be cut with no real loss at all), but generally it hits a balance between pomposity and entertainment. It has plenty of violence and naked ladies (the harem of Babylon is shown in detail – it’s pre-Code folks) to keep the punters entertained, along with charm (though you need to look past the pose-taking, broadness of the performances). Griffith has a way with little shots: there is a lovely track into the face of the Dear One as she silently mourns. The chase in the modern plotline is genuinely tense while the massacre of the innocents in 1572 actually horrifying.
Above all, Intolerance set the table for epic cinema in exactly the way Griffith intended. While it is full of big ideas – at times clumsily presented – it’s also full of breath-taking spectacle that has influenced generations to come. For that reason, if nothing else, anyone interested in film should see it.