After The Birth of a Nation earned a severe condemnation, D. W. Griffith’s return to the directorial chair produced a radically different thematic outlook on prejudice. Whilst the former, either consciously or unconsciously, encouraged racial inequality to prevail, Intolerance instead is a cautionary tale of sensitivity and acceptance of subjective ways of life.
Simply, Intolerance is an epic atonement.
The narrative of this unprecedented three hour long epic entails four separate stories concerning intolerance over the course of two thousand five hundred years of human history. These include the Fall of Babylon, Crucifixion of Jesus, St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572 and a Modern Story of crime and redemption. Each is interwoven with a common theme of intolerance, love and the image of Lillian Gish as the Eternal Mother.
After a single viewing, and perhaps many more to absorb the staggering detail, it will be near impossible to separate the word Epic from Intolerance. D.W. Griffith once again demonstrates a grand and precise eye for cinema and storytelling with a unique quartet narrative. The cross cutting evident in Griffith’s past work has evolved from infancy into a decisive maturity. The back and forth between time periods develops faster and faster as scenes accelerate to the climax. This technique, which confused past audiences, is of unique sophistication in the design and tension it excites. The ‘chase’ and battles across time are dazzling sequences which tie together characters of far flung time periods into a united common fight. Such elegantly designed tension would not be seen again until the emergence of Hitchcock.
One weaker aspect of Intolerance is the screen time dissected between the four narratives. Each segment does not develop with the same depth and consistency as Babylon and the Modern story are evidently given greater attention. However, the Crucifixion and the Massacre are excellent mini stories which punctuate the larger narrative. Griffith is exceptionally talented in this respect as he is able to offer us four stories and juxtapose or parallel the larger narratives with both smaller narratives. Both the Crucifixion and Massacre submerge into the background until called upon to compound an emotional moment for all it can offer.
The acting across the spectrum of time is excellent from the entire ensemble. Each performer deals with the challenge of existing as an archetypal aspect of humanity, rather than a character, with excellence. The Boy, Brown Eyes, The Dear One, Mountain Girl and so on all dominate the screen with a huge presence as each story take centre stage. As the narratives collide in a parallel chase, the battles of Babylon hold equal emotional upheaval as The Dear One rushing to The Boy’s aid.
The real star of this piece is the sets and Griffith’s expert cinematography. With a budget estimated at the unfathomable two and a half million dollars, Intolerance is a thematic essay and exploration of sensitivity in the most colossal of examples. Each set is constructed with a masterful eye, but none so lavishly as in The Fall of Babylon. The mythological city lives and breathes in opulent splendour. Thousands of extras in magnificent costumes bustle through the chariot wide streets shadowed by three hundred foot walls. The statues and stair cases are a treat for the eye and all magnificently captured by beautiful and mastered cinematography. Each section from Babylon to Modern times is captured with inventiveness and vividly captures the life of the time. Grand Babylonian battles roar with blood and energy, the courts of the sixteenth century move with malicious liveliness, the modern day is photographed with intimacy. Each successive image is breathtaking in its sophistication and understanding of the narrative process.
Intolerance was a colossal commercial failure on par with the scope of the film, bankrupting Triangle films in one fell swoop. Thankfully, Intolerance can be reviewed with refreshed and awe inspired eyes able to appreciate the movie for what it is – a true epic of great intimacy.
The celebratory feast unlike any witnessed in cinema before or after. A lavish set of epic proportions with a sea of three thousand extras dancing, eating and enjoying their triumph in a bloody battle. This will be the final celebration of Babylon and Griffith captures it with a long crane shot into the madness. It is a decisive and dreamy movement to reflect the euphoric atmosphere. A camera movement and a film of ultimate liberation from the chains of cinema’s infancy.