By the middle of the nineteen-teens, there was no bigger director in Hollywood than D.W. Griffith, and with Intolerance (1916) he went waaaaaaaaaaay out of his way to show that to everyone. Intolerance is a massive epic that weaves together four stories: one set in the present, another in the last days of Babylon, a third about conflict between Catholics and Huguenots in 16th century France, and (because Griffith certainly isn’t lacking in ambition) the life of Jesus of Nazareth. As Griffith jumps between the stories, he attempts to draw parallels meant to warn against the dangers of intolerance towards the beliefs of others. That certainly sounds like a noble idea, but the film came on the heels of his smash hit The Birth of a Nation, for which Griffith was (very rightly) accused of tremendous racism against black Americans. Whether this film was meant as penance is unclear. What is clear is that Intolerance was far and away the most expensive movie made to that point, and you see every dollar on the screen. (198 min.)
J. – Just to get it out of the way: Wow! OK, now I can speak more rationally about this gargantuan chimera of a film. There were some truly amazing moments dotted across Intolerance, and the sheer spectacle of the Babylon sequences is hard to believe. Thousands of soldiers, actual siege towers, opulently dressed revelers draped upon fantastical temples, and “why not have the king pet a leopard?” Griffith was clearly out to impress on as grand a scale as possible, and in some instances he absolutely did just that. Even so, I think this movie was a real failure on the whole.
S. – This film is huge in every sense but the overall effect that it had on me was one of tackiness. The opulence was too much, the moralising was too much and the four stories was too much! The main story (based on screen time) was a modern day tale of a hyperactive, ditzy and simple girl who falls on bad times due to the interference of the town’s well-to-do social reformers. While I found this story the most visually appealing, the premise was infuriatingly simplistic in terms of good guys versus bad guys. Those evil, unattractive women concerned about child welfare were apparently the super-villains of the day.
J. – I didn’t really mind the simplistic characterizations. I think they are a staple of silent film, where it is more necessary to telegraph one’s emotions for the audience to understand. I actually rather liked the performance by Robert Harron as The Boy in the modern day sequence (a character that actually was reasonably complex: part decent guy, part thug). And the plucky Mountain Girl of the Babylon sequences (Constance Talmadge) may have been a bit one-dimensional but she was great fun (hard to speak ill of an actress willing to risk a goat’s wrath by biting its ear!). What I really struggled with was the way the four stories were linked together. Since Griffith was cutting from story to story, one would assume the different stories would be juxtaposed to parallel each other or create an emotional current that would have an impact on the subsequent scene. But more often the jumps in time and space seemed to be almost at random.
S. – I have to challenge you on describing The Boy as complex, yes he was a thug for a part of the story but as soon as he met his manic, pixie girl he was as docile as a lamb [J. — I totally disagree.]. That is not complex, it is lame. Needless to say I didn’t find the modern tale particularly satisfying. But to its credit a narrative did unfold, whereas the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in the France section felt especially underdone, everyone seemed to be getting along, puppies and parties, then a very tumultuous meeting (Did the king actually throw-up? Is that a first!?) and all hell breaks loose. Confusing is an understatement.
J. – The film tanked at the box office, so audiences of the day certainly would have agreed with you. You are spot on about the French section being woefully underwritten, and that goes double for the Jesus section, which barely has any screen time. The Babylon and modern day stories had complete story arcs (admittedly with a few big loose threads: What happened to the Rhapsode? And what about the baby?), so I didn’t really mind the film cutting back and forth between these two tales, but after awhile the French and Jesus stories felt like little more than unwelcome interruptions. Both would disappear for long stretches and then reappear for little reason and without much story development. So when tragedy struck in those stories it really was anticlimactic; without having developed a connection to any of the characters, there were no stakes when people get stabbed/shot/crucified. The modern and Babylon stories at least earned their resolutions.
S. – I entirely agree that I didn’t connect with those other two stories. In fact puzzling over when we were going to be returned to them was quite distracting, so that I was never completely focused on the tale at hand. At the end of this truly epic film the moments I will happily take away are the brilliant staging from the gallows scene, the amazing set and scenery from Babylon, three puppies worn as a belt and some proof that they don’t make ’em like they used to.
J. – The staging of the gallows was amazing, and the standout image for me even though I was primarily taken by the amazing grandiosity of the Babylon scenes. I think what I take away from Intolerance is a great “what might have been”. The ambition on display was awe inspiring, but the execution ultimately brings the whole enterprise down. Had Griffith stuck all four landings, instead of just two, this would have been beyond incredible.
Your last bit read like your final thoughts on the film, S., but I’d like to ask you one more thing: Most people (myself included) really get sucked in by the awesome scale and extravagance of the Babylon scenes, but you said you preferred the look of the modern day story. What was it that appealed to you?
S. – Purely personal taste, I really enjoy high contrast, black-and-white film and the light was used here to stunning effect. I almost forgave The Boy for being a schmuck just for his performance during the gallows scene. The less cluttered style of the modern day story appealed to me, visually it was a relief to return to after the excesses of Babylon and made it more natural to focus on the drama unfolding. Griffith is obviously a talented director, the visual impact of the film is undeniable, but the lack of cohesion is ultimately what lost it for me.