In our minds, we picture Intolerance differently than most films. Say the title, and we usually don’t see the faces of the Dear One or Brown Eyes or run shots from the four storylines through our minds. We picture the photo of the massive hall of Babylon. We see the sharp-edged archways, the curves and ridges of the immense pillars, the white elephants with their peculiarly defined muscles and curving trunks. We also see the masses of tiny people on the floor of the hall, clustering around the feet of the elephants, and lining the top of the archways. There is an awed sensation when you think of this dense image. Perhaps there is also a sense of remoteness.
But recall the actual scene itself, how the camera slowly, smoothly moves forward, closer and closer until we can clearly see the people, see the details of their clothes, and can see their faces in their matte makeup.
Intolerance focuses on its four stories like a magnifying glass held at different lengths. There are vignettes from the life of Christ, portrayed with dignity and perhaps with some debt to old Passion Plays; romance between a prince and his beloved amid the grandeur of ancient Babylon (plus a lively mountain girl); the closeknit 1500s French family of “Brown Eyes,” soon to suffer from a plot by the de Medicis; and finally the character-driven story of a young “modern day” tenement couple torn apart by circumstance. From the familiarity of the New Testament scenes we zoom in all the way to the intense focus on the modern story, raw and emotional, punctuated by Robert Harron’s horror-filled eyes and Mae Marsh’s anxious hands.
The magnifying glass flicks back and forth, from the epic to the intimate, from the poetic to grim realism. Ancient, modern, the Renaissance–through it all the Mother rocks the Cradle, eternally watching, eternally daydreaming.
For all the talk of D.W. Griffith being “a product of Victorian times” (I guess this is a slight), his film has guts. We see two beheadings, swords running through bleeding bodies, half naked women sprawling seductively on couches, and even someone vomiting on camera. The moments can be a little startling to see, for a product of 1916. Imagine how Edwardian audiences must’ve felt.
And how did they react to those magnificent action scenes? The racing chariots, the luridly-lit night shots, the mighty seige towers slowly advancing on the thick walls of Babylon–it was all possibly without peer until the Lord of the Rings trilogy came along many decades later. It’s easy to forget it was filmed during WWI.
Griffith’s opus may brood over the dark, lofty theme of “intolerance,” but it’s also lit up with beauty. The Babylon scenes are jawdropping in their attention to detail. Everything–everything–from the beading on the gowns to the designs on the shields is impressively ornate. And that famous shot of the great hall, with its elephant statues and its lines of languid dancers and banners waving in that huge space, is enough to bring tears to my eyes. This is cinema!
There’s also the rich decor of the de Medici palace…if we remember it. The Renaissance story is the one that everyone tends to forget, and connects with the least, even though it’s probably the most blatant example of “intolerance” in the entire film. We simply don’t get a chance to sympathize much with Brown Eyes, and when she meets her fate (a brutal one at that) we’re sorry for the poor girl but we don’t feel that we’ve lost a friend.
It’s different with the modern story, certainly the most powerful of the four. The Christ storyline can rest on its familiarity (not that it isn’t done with care), and Constance Talmadge’s tomboyish character keeps Babylon down to earth, but the Boy and the Dear One are the most human. We need them in Intolerance. Robert Harron and Mae Marsh had been paired in Griffith films for years, and this is the height of their work together. Look at Harron’s long, broken look as he holds his father’s body. Look at how Mae Marsh gives a little swoon in spite of herself when Harron first strokes her hand.
We can talk and talk about the weaknesses of the film— the heavy-handedness of the title cards, its uneven storylines (although that’s due to chopping out much of the original 8-hour cut), the shaky case for Babylon being a kind of ancient paradise–but when the Boy and the Dear One embrace at the end I’m always moved to tears.
Still, in my opinion there’s one thing Intolerance could’ve taken much further–the climax. It famously switches from one storyline to the next, faster and faster, until it reaches a crescendo in the ending of the modern story. But does it really jump back and forth that quickly? For instance, we have a nice switch from Cyrus’s charging armies to a car racing a train, but then the focus lingers on the modern setting long enough for the rhythm to be broken. When I saw it for the first time I’d hoped for everything to build to a glorious rapid montage of images–maybe not as fast as Sergei Eisenstein’s, but in a similar vein. How exciting, fresh, and modern would that have seemed?
I love Intolerance. I love how earnest it is, how it’s concerned with nothing less than the greater good of mankind itself. How many other films have been so ridiculously ambitious, and on such a scale?
We in 2016 stand on a summit of jawdropping special effects and pristine animation. There are cameras that can soar through the air on little helicopters or plunge into the depths of the ocean. Anything we can visualize, we can create onscreen. There are gorgeous fantasy worlds, robots with a thousand complex parts, and stunning landscapes galore. We’re accustomed to wonder; we hardly discuss special effects anymore.
But one hundred years ago in a southern California town, all fruit orchards and country stores and small bungalows, a stubborn man with a dream built the great halls of ancient Babylon. And the wonder of that real, handmade set is still strong, still humbling, as it doubtless will be a hundred years from now.
- No, Intolerance was not an apology for The Birth of a Nation—quite the opposite, in fact. Griffith was indignant over the backlash and was trying to make a point about others being intolerant about opposing views.
- The original cut was around 8 hours long. Griffith slashed much of the Christ and Renaissance stories to bring it down to a manageable length.
- According to cameraman Karl Brown, a number of the extras actually injured each other during the battle scenes.
- The massive cast, aside from the leads and including extras, reportedly includes: Bessie Love, Walter Long, Donald Crisp, Alma Rubens, Billy Quirk, Carmel Myers, Joseph Henabery, Tod Browning, Kate Bruce, Max Davidson, Douglas Fairbanks, Owen Moore, Carol Dempster, Mildred Harris, Madame Sul-Te-Wan, Wallace Reid, Natalie Talmadge, Monte Blue, and King Vidor. Erich von Stroheim was an assistant director.
- The massacre of workers is modeled after the real Ludlow massacre, which involved John D. Rockefeller.
- It’s sometimes said that false eyelashes were invented to add an extra “something” to Seena Owen’s eyes in Intolerance, but actually they predate the cinema.
- Griffith gave the film a roadshow presentation–that is, it traveled with an orchestra and theaters had to be specially decorated.
- It wasn’t actually a flop, but the roadshow presentation turned out to be too expensive for it to make a profit.
- After the filming, the magnificent Babylon set was left vacant (except for Griffith using it during Hearts of the World). Being too expensive to tear down at first, it was left to crumble until 1919.
- In 2001, the Kodak Theater Complex at Hollywood Boulevard and Highland in Hollywood had its grand opening and featured a main courtyard a massive archway and two elephant statues, which were based on the designs from the film. These stood until the mall was remodeled in 2021.
It’s fascinating how you bring up how people try to slight Griffith as being “Victorian,” as if it’s a slight to be Victorian. In several books I was reading recently (about Sherlock Holmes and Charles Dickens), some people seem to be beginning to make the case that the Victorians weren’t nearly as straight-laced as people make them out to be…even in things like violence and murder.
Though I have to admit I was surprised at the beheading…wasn’t expecting that in a silent movie, but I’m beginning to think that silent movies actually have more in common with the films of today than movies made during the 1930s and ’40s.
There’s a big stereotype out there that Victorians were all a bunch of solemn, uptight prudes…all I can say is, if they were such prudes then we wouldn’t exist! Not that I agree with some revisionists out there who try to claim the absolute opposite: “Everything was filthy and everyone was an amoral hypocrites!!” Um, no. There’s plenty of nice, decent people today, so why would the past–when certain things were much, MUCH more taboo–be that hideously different? But I’m getting off track…
I wonder if part of that anti-Victorian sentiment actually dates from the 1920s and ’30s, when people joked about their “Victorian aunts” and the like. That’s what I recall from books like the ones by L.M. Montgomery, anyways.
I like your thought about the 1910s films being a little more in sync with today’s.
I love Intolerance. The first time I saw it I was baffled by it. But then it was one of the first silent films I watched. Since then I have watched it three or four times and have grown to fully appreciate it. My favourite scene in the film is when King Belshazzar is to be taken to his throne to avoid being killed and instead commit suicide. The ever-loyal Mighty Man of Valor, realizing that all is lost and death is imminent, gives him a farewell kiss. That scene moves me every time.
Intolerance seems to strike people in 3 different ways: they love it right away, it has to grow on them, or they just never care for it. It’s nice reading through today’s comments and seeing some love for Intolerance–so many people seem to react to it with a “meh.” (At least in online discussions I’ve seen.) Um, this is the movie with a giant rolling flamethrower in it–DID THEY NOT SEE THE GIANT FLAMETHROWER. 😀
Hi Lea. Excellent point about the climax. It is gripping as we see it, but it could be even more dynamic. I’m not sure I would survive watching that. I like your magnifying glass metaphor. It is a good way to look at the viewpoint of each story.
Imagine if Abel Gance had directed the climax. Dizzying!!
I love it #😇
I’ll put in a plug for the Photoplay restoration with the Carl Davis score. If anyone believed they loved INTOLERANCE before seeing the beautiful, clean and stable, tinted and toned image of the restoration with Davis’ lush orchestrations in the background, they will find even more reason to love it. I’ve heard folks say it shouldn’t be recommended to silent film newbies, or viewed all at once; but when I popped in the blu-ray of the new restoration, I was mesmerized. I watched it alone, from beginning to end in one sitting, and the time flew. It was a revelation seeing just how much a work of art this film really is. The thing I love about constructed sets is they are real. Today, there is good CGI and bad CGI, but you can always tell it’s CGI; we can see the difference between what’s real and what almost looks real.
Yes. YES. Anyone who insists they don’t like Intolerance should at least give the new restoration a try. It’s SUCH a treat when you’ve been watching the fuzzier versions for years!
Re use of the term “Victorian,” there were actually three generations of Victorians so I always wonder which generation is being referred to? Of course, the likely answer is that people using the term don’t really know what they’re talking about. The term refers to the reign of Queen Victoria of the UK who reigned from 1837 to her death in 1901. Counting her own generation, there were three generations of Victorians. The first were actually swingers at least among the Dowton Abbey-type upper class. Their famous “weekends” at one of the country estates had some curious customs among them being room-swapping or more to the point spouse swapping for the night. Guests would migrate from one bedroom to another under the cover of night, then shortly before dawn a servant would walk down the hallway ringing a gong to wake folks up so they could scurry back to their own rooms while it was still dark. Later when they all met at breakfast it was played for high comedy as they asked each other how they slept when – ho-ho – they spent the night together. But in time the comedy went sour when nature took its course in terms of pregnancies, STDs, and plain old divorce. Thus, the first generation of Victorians came rue their behavior and advised their adult children not to repeat their mistakes. Hence, the myth of uptight and repressed Victorians.
Yes, I’ve always heard that the Victorian era comprises Queen Victoria’s reign. What we often lump in under the “Victorian” is often actually the Edwardian era (I try and point this out a lot, lol).
In Griffith’s case, his occasional use of nudity, violence, and (in some films) characters that aren’t black-and-white villains and damsels (like in Way Down East) points to him moving beyond your standard, humbly-staged 19th c. melodrama.
I’d be wary to assume that everyone–absolutely everyone!–in the upper classes was engaging in swinging back in the day. That’s the kind of “oh em gee everyone was ACTUALLY totally kinky and crazy back then” kind of revisionism that’s no better than the “repressed” stereotype. (Not saying you believe that, but there are plenty of folks out there that would take that kind of trivia and run with it!) There are countless environmental/social/religious factors to consider as well.
It’s interesting to me how many studies on the subject of Victorians seem to focus on life in the upper classes and life in the impoverished classes, especially in big cities. The regular, more in-between folks, especially in smaller cities and little towns, don’t seem to get as much attention. Or that’s what I kinda see, anyway (watch, someone will pop up with a thousand book recommendations all on the middle classes. 😀 )
Lea, I am referring to the people who lived in the second half of 19th Britain, not the conventions of stage melodramas of the era. You are correct that I am not claiming that “everyone” was promiscuous but rather the stereotype of sexually repressed people could not be more wrong. Human nature doesn’t change and the conduct of people during the Victorian Era is no exception.
My Griffith thoughts were more part of the general discussion on his being considered “Victorian,” even though not all of his tropes fit that stereotype–not very clear I know. This is what happens when I read everything all at once!
Intolerance may have flaws, but to me, its ambitions and what it gets right more than save it from being a failure as some like to deem it. I remember when Cloud Atlas came out a few years ago, people were acting like its structure was unique, but I was like, it’s pretty much Intolerance’s schtick with a new (and not nearly as impressive) coat of paint.
True!! And it had the benefits of CGI, too. It’s main message doesn’t seem as deep as the one in Intolerance, either. Wachowskis, the Matrix was cool but I think you need to stop.
After watching Jupiter Ascending, yeah, those ladies definitely need to sit back and rethink what it means to write a story and not just a barrage of spectacle and special effects. Intolerance may have its flaws, but it at the very least has good characters and a compelling enough narrative which are bolstered by, and not dwarfed by, the spectacle.
Lordy, Jupiter Ascending has got to be one of the worst movies of the entire 21st c. so far. And that list includes Master of Disguise. *involuntary shudder* A great spectacle grows out of a great story…not the other way around!!
Finished watching it. Most impressive and riveting!
Yes, I agree somewhat about the conclusion, though I think it is still effective as is. But you know one thing I wanted to see that was omitted?—and this is a big omission—the child being put back into the Dear One’s arms, and the father now with his child for the first time. Why, oh why, didn’t Griffith put that in? It would have been such a satisfying resolution to that heart-rending strand of the story in which the Dear One’s baby is torn from her. He could have even just kind of vignetted it in briefly somewhere amid those final scenes. Of course, you figure they’ll be united—but still, I’d like to have seen it.
When watching the Babylon parts, I remembered your earlier comments about Constance Talmadge. She indeed was absolutely delightful in this, reminding much of Mabel Normand, strangely, at times. She was so funny and endearing that the mountain girl’s death was all the more poignant.
All in all, this is one I should have watched years ago. Thanks for highlighting it so beautifully this month. This paragraph: “The magnifying glass flicks back and forth, from the epic to the intimate, from the poetic to grim realism. Ancient, modern, the Renaissance–through it all the Mother rocks the Cradle, eternally watching, eternally daydreaming.” Yes, that sums it up. What a *beautiful* description! I think D.W. himself would have appreciated those lyrical words.
I’m SO glad you enjoyed Intolerance!! There’s really nothing else out there quite like it. Thank you for the compliment on my writing, too. 🙂
Having the baby be given back to the young couple would’ve worked really nicely in the finale, I agree! Especially paired with the brief scene of the children playing in the “utopia land.”
Griffith finally released The Mother and the Law (the modern sequence) as a feature in 1919, and there was a scene in which the Dear One’s baby is returned to her, but it’s dead. It’s a very grim, heartbreaking scene.
Thank you so much for this text! Very interesting!
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