If you stopped by for my post last week, you would have seen me getting very angry while I reviewed D.W. Griffith’s controversial silent epic The Birth of a Nation (1915). I hated the movie. Or maybe loathed would be a better word. So I was trepidatious about watching Griffith’s 1916 follow-up, Intolerance, which follows four distinct stories about intolerance through the ages.
Griffith made the film in response to the protests against The Birth of a Nation. Some claim Intolerance was his way of apologizing for The Birth of a Nation and others say he was doing no such thing. Either way you look at it, Intolerance has held up in the eyes of most modern viewers and critics while The Birth of a Nation hasn’t. Intolerance actually plays better now than it did in 1916. When it premiered, audiences weren’t as accustomed to movies cutting back and forth between multiple stories. It was only later that people understood the brilliance of what Griffith had put together.
While I thought The Birth of a Nation fell short of its epic reputation, Intolerance met, if not sometimes exceeded, my expectations. Story one tells of the fall of ancient Babylon. Due to the conflicting worshiping of two different Babylonian gods, Bel-Marduk and Ishtar, the high priest of Bel-Marduk (played by Tully Marshall) is set to betray Prince Belshazzar of Babylon (played by Alfred Paget) to Belshazzar’s sworn enemy, Cyrus the Great of Persia (played by George Siegmann). A tomboyish and free-spirited mountain girl (played by Constance Talmadge) dedicates herself to Belshazzar after he casually saves her from an auction intent on selling her off to to a prospective husband. Belshazzar awards The Mountain Girl the right to marry or not marry whoever she wishes, at which point she falls for the Prince and later fights for him in the battles between the Babylonians and the Persians.
Story two follows Jesus Christ (played by Howard Gaye) as he spreads the word of God to the citizens of Judea. Those who disbelieve in his teachings push for his eventual crucifixion.
Story three takes place in Renaissance France during the time right before and during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. This was the horrible event that saw the Catholic royals of France attempt to obliterate all the Protestant Huguenots from the country. In this story, some of our characters are Catherine de Medici (played by Josephine Crowell), Charles IX of France (played by Frank Bennett), and Prince Henry of France (played by Maxfield Stanley). We also follow a young woman, simply known as Brown Eyes, played by Margery Wilson. Brown Eyes is being threatened by a violent mercenary soldier (played by Allan Sears), who is intent on taking Brown Eyes for himself whether she likes the idea or not.
Finally, we have a modern day story set in America. When a puritan group takes hold in an unnamed town, mill owners decide to donate some of their profits to the puritan organization (which claims to be a charity made up of moral uplifters) in order to see the end of all the amoral behavior they think is occurring in the area. This leads to a reduction of wages for the mill workers, who proceed to go on strike. The strike does not go in the workers’ favor and many are forced to leave the town for hope of jobs elsewhere. One worker (played by Robert Harron), called merely The Boy, isn’t able to find work and so turns to a life of crime. He is thankfully put back on the right path after meeting and marrying a young, innocent girl (played by Mae Marsh), known simply as The Dear One. The Dear One’s father was a mill worker, and while he found work in the new town, he died suddenly after a dramatic encounter with The Boy, who instantly feels bad about The Dear One’s loss. It is this death that is one of the catalysts for his rehabilitation. A rough road lies ahead for the couple as The Boy is wrongly accused of theft and is jailed for a time, The Dear One loses her baby to the uplifters (who unjustly accuse her of being an unfit mother), and The Boy is put on trial for murder. If The Boy is proven guilty, the punishment is hanging until dead. The Dear One now must find a way to clear her husband’s name before it is too late.
Intolerance holds a lot of joy for people with the patience to get through its over three hour run time. It’s also filled with a good amount of padding or boring story developments. Since this is broken up into four separate stories, I’ll start by listing which I preferred from worst to best.
1. The story of Jesus, his rise and fall, was my least favorite not due to it being bad but because it was the least developed. We are never given time to get to know any of the characters, Jesus or otherwise, and we’re only given brief glances into the story, usually with large jumps occurring between looks. So little time is spent on this story that I wish Griffith had cut it out entirely. I’m convinced that the only reason he didn’t was so he could utilize the imagery of Christ carrying the cross and later dying on it.
2. The French story is better but it also suffers from its small screen time. It’s certainly explored more but I was disappointed when I got such small glimpses of Brown Eyes when the beginning of the movie acted like we would be seeing a lot of her. I felt I barely knew her when her final note in the movie took place.
3. Ancient Babylon starts out wonderfully with its focus on The Mountain Girl. Constance Talmadge, while over-the-top, has fun with her role, and I had fun watching her be her own person in a comic fashion. Where the Babylon story fails is when it decides to move away from her after she dedicates herself to Prince Belshazzar. After that, it focuses more on the battles between Babylon and and Persia. It’s during these parts of the tale that the movie gets lost in its high production values and its countless extras. I don’t mind spending a little time staring at the mind bogglingly grand Babylon sets or enjoying some nicely staged battle sequences or witnessing ancient celebrations and ceremonies. The movie gets carried away with it, though, and makes you wish the film would return to the human stories it was doing so well in telling. The Mountain Girl fighting with the male soldiers during the battle sequences is feministic in a movie of such age that I wouldn’t have expected anything of the kind. It was refreshing to say the least. The Mountain Girl also comes back to the forefront of the story near the end, but I wish we had stuck with her throughout the whole thing instead of getting lost in the technical and historical end of the story.
4. By far the best of the bunch is the modern day segment. There are a few uninteresting parts but most of it is consistently gripping, dramatic, and tragic. I was on pins and needles waiting to see what would happen to The Dear One and The Boy next and how their story would eventually end. Every development is marvelously acted, written, edited, and directed, and it shows Griffith’s skill in creating suspense with truly human stories.
So good is the modern day stuff that I was always impatient to go back to that story and see what was going on. It speaks to the strength of that tale but also highlights the weaknesses in the others. The crosscutting of stories during the climax does create a level of tension that I don’t think would’ve been possible with just the modern day story, so the other segments do have their uses even if they aren’t always great on their own.
Intolerance was practically the polar opposite of The Birth of a Nation. I didn’t hate it but instead rejoiced in how really good it could be. It is held back by dull scenes where Griffith got too wrapped up in the epic scale and lost sight of the great human characters he helped create. All four stories aren’t given equal screen time either and resulted in half of them holding little investment for me as a viewer. If the four segments had all been as good as the modern times section or The Mountain Girl centric parts of the Babylon story, I would place this among some of the best movies ever made. Because of its shortcomings I can’t place it that high but I can understand why others would. Personally, I rank it as a fine film that demonstrates Griffith’s great powers as a director. It’s thanks to this movie that my faith in Griffith’s work has been renewed.