Monday, September 5, 2016

Stubs - Intolerance (1916)


Intolerance (1916) Starring: All Ages: Lillian Gish; Judean story: Lillian Langdon, Olga Grey, Baron Von Ritzau, Count Von Stroheim, Bessie Love, George Walsh, Howard Gaye, William Brown; Medieval French story: Margery Wilson, Spottiswoode Aitken, Ruth Handforth, Eugene Pallette, Eugene Pallette, A. D. Sears, Frank Bennett, Maxfield Stanley, Josephine Crowell, Georgia Pearce; Babylonian story: Constance Talmadge, Elmer Clifton, Alfred Paget, Seena Owen, Loyola O'Connor, Carl Stockdale, Tully Marshall, George Siegmann; Modern story: Mae Marsh, Fred Turner, Robert Harron, Sam de Grasse, Clyde Hopkins. Directed by D.W. Griffith. Written by D. W. Griffith and Anita Loos. Produced by D. W. Griffith. Black and White (tinted). Runtime: 197 minutes. U.S.A. Silent, Drama

If you were David Wark (D.W.) Griffith, the question was what do you do to follow up your most successful and most controversial film, Birth of a Nation (1915)? Not only did Birth of a Nation make a lot of money, some say it was the most successful film until Gone With the Wind (1939) was released, but it also came under heavy criticism from all corners, who condemned it for its bigoted betrayal of blacks and for making the White-Supremacist Klu Klux Klan the heroes of the piece.

Intolerance, which would eventually be that response, is actually four stories weaved together. The American “Modern” story, set in 1914, depicting the conflict between capitalist and their workers, began as a separate film, The Mother and the Law, originally intended as a companion for The Escape (1914), a film Griffith directed for Mutual which was a study of white slavery and inner-city corruption. He began working on The Mother while still editing Birth of a Nation.

When the controversy over Birth reached its peak in May 1915, Griffith decided to expand that film to more epic proportions, building elaborate sets to represent a ballroom in a mansion and the Chicago courtroom and further expanded the story to include a strike scene.

But Griffith wasn’t through making a film that would be more epic than Birth of a Nation had been. In the summer, Griffith began to work on the French story patterned after Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots, which had enjoyed great popularity at the Metropolitan Opera with Caruso and Toscanini. It was originally conceived as a lustrous counterpoint to the rather drab Modern story. Set in 1572, which tells of the religious intolerance that led to the massacre of the Protestant Huguenots at the hands of the Catholic royals, known as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, the sequence focuses on Brown Eyes (Margery Wilson), a Huguenot who is supposed to get married when the persecution begins.

It was at the end of the year that Griffith began work on the sequence that would serve as the cornerstone to the film. Set in 539 B.C., the Babylon sequence depicts the conflict between Prince Belshazzar of Babylon (Alfred Paget) and Cyrus the Great of Persia (George Siegmann). Babylon falls as a result of intolerance arising from the conflict between devotees of two rival gods, Bel-Marduk and Ishtar. Playing an important role in the sequence is The Mountain Girl (Constance Talmadge).

The final main sequence added to the film, The Biblical or “Judean” story, set in 27 A.D., shows the intolerance after the Wedding of Cana and the Woman Taken in Adultery that led to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (Howard Gaye).

Overall, the film cuts back and forth between these parallel stories something like 50 times. Breaks between the stories are marked by the symbolic image of a mother (Lillian Gish) rocking the cradle, showing the passing of generations.

Estimates are that the film cost about $2.5 million, about $47 million in 2016 dollars; it was one of the most expensive films made up to that time. Made at the Fine Arts Studio in Hollywood, the film had one large outdoor set, the Babylon set on what would become Sunset Blvd., which would remain standing for four years after the film was made.

A later photo shows the back of the sets still standing.
Map showing the location and size of the Babylon set.

All of the sets used in the film were built under the guise of Frank "Huck" Wortman. Wortman’s building techniques helped save Griffith money, while at the same time building the oversized Babylon set. If you live in or visit Los Angeles and want to get an idea of the size of the set, according to Wikimapia, "the developers of the Hollywood Highland shopping center built part of the archway and 2 pillars with elephant sculptures on the capitals, just as seen in the film to the same full scale."

These features at the Hollywood Highland shopping center were supposedly
built to the same scale as they had been in the movie.

Without a written script, Griffith would gather 4,000 extras at $2 a day to impersonate Assyrian soldiers, Numidian eunuchs, priests of Bel, handmaidens of Ishtar, slaves of Mesopotamia; and, soaring up over his Babylon set on a 100-foot camera-crane, he allegedly gave the order to “Move those 10,000 horses a trifle to the right, and that mob out there, three feet forward,” but that is most likely a good story.

The final film, full name Intolerance, Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages or Intolerance, a Sun-play of the Ages, was released on September 5, 1916, as two acts with a prologue and a short epilogue. All four stories are addressed in both acts with the first act serving as a set up and the conclusions played out in act two. Each story is supposed to have it's own tint, but that doesn't seem to hold true throughout the print we watched, so I won't go into it here.

It should probably not come as a great surprise that the film is now in public domain, which means there is really no one controlling the film. While there multiple versions of the film out there, there are four main ones:

1)    The Killiam Shows Version. With a running time of 177 minutes, this is perhaps the most widely seen version of the film today. Taken from third-generation 16 mm prints and with an organ score by Gaylord Carter, this is considered one of the most complete versions.

2)    The Official Thames Restoration Version: With a running time of 177 minutes, this version was given a formal restoration by film historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill. It features an orchestral score written by Carl Davis. Even though it has the same running time as the Killiam version it is not considered as complete and has some different footage. This version is now part of the Rohauer Collection.

3)    The Kino Version. With the longest running time of 197 minutes, this version was pieced together in 2002 by Kino from existing 35 mm prints of the film. It contains a synthetic soundtrack by Joseph Turrin. Despite its longer run time, this version is thought to be more incomplete than either the Killiam or the Rohauer prints.

4)    The Restored Digital Cinema Version, which was shown at the 2007 Venice Film Festival. At 177 minutes, it is an attempt to recreate the version shown at the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane, London on April 7, 1917.

Because we own it, we’re reviewing the Kino Version. We may refer to scenes that are not in the other versions, but this is the best we can do at the moment. Rather than breaking the film down transition by transition, the review will cover the four main stories Act by Act.

Title card.

The film starts with a short prologue, the title card reads:

Our play is made up of four separate stories, laid in different periods of history, each with its own set of characters. Each story shows how hatred and intolerance, through all the ages, have battled against love and charity. Therefore, you will find our play turning from one of the four stories to another, as the common theme unfolds in each.

We’re then introduced to the first of many times, tinted in blue, a young woman (Lillian Gish) rocking a large wooden cradle covered with roses. She is flooded from above by a beam of light. Three indistinguishable women or 'Fates' sit huddled together to the left in the background.

Lillian Gish is the young woman we see rocking the cradle, representing
that through the ages man doesn't seem to change.

The Whitman poem is shown paraphrased: "Today as yesterday, endlessly rocking, ever 
bringing the same human passions, the same joys and sorrows."

The film gets a little more heavy-handed with the introduction of a leather-bound book titled: Intolerance. Like the rocking cradle, the book will be a recurring symbol throughout the film.
The first story tackled is The Modern Story, which starts with the wealthy Mary T. Jenkins (Vera Lewis) realizing that she is no longer young and she is becoming the target of the Uplifters, a temperance type group which wants to make the world a better place in their own image. Jenkins, whose wealth comes from her family mill, spends more and more money on the Uplifters, but times are hard and to make up for her generosity, her brother, credited only as Jenkins (Sam de Grasse), decides to cut all worker wages by 10 percent.

The ballroom at the Jenkins mansion.

This surprise cut in pay doesn’t sit well with the workers and they strike. The sequence is loosely based on a similar strike at John D. Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel and Iron Company in 1914. In that strike, things turned violent and 23 striking employees were killed by the National Guard. As with that strike, there are casualties in the one in the film.

With his father killed, The Boy (Robert Harron) leaves for another city. Similarly, The Dear One (Mae Marsh) and her father (Fred Turner) also leave and end up in the same district. The Dear One’s father can't handle the transition and dies. The Boy, having left his best girl, who becomes the Friendless One (Miriam Cooper), drifts into petty crime, eventually going to work for the Musketeer of the Slums (Walter Long). The Musketeer takes up with The Friendless One.

The Boy (Robert Harron) is with his father when he's killed during the riot at the Mill.

But now The Boy and The Dear One make a romantic connection and get married. When she becomes pregnant, The Boy tries to quit the racket, but the Musketeer won’t let him walk away. He has his minions plant stolen property on The Boy and he is arrested and sent to prison.

The Uplifters, having ridded the town of dancing, decide to turn their attention to mothers and lock in on The Dear One. It doesn’t help that her Kindly Neighbor (Max Davidson) has just brought her a sandwich and a glass of beer when the Uplifters arrive. Shocked by what they see and with a warrant in hand, they seize the baby.

The Uplifters seize the baby from The Dear One (Mae Marsh).

The second story introduced is the Judean sequence. According to reports, the B'nai B'rith successfully lobbied Griffith to edit this sequence down and it ends up being the one plot line that gets the least screen time.

This story is introduced with words transposed over stone tablets with Hebrew script - this characteristic background will be used for all the Judean Story titles:

Ancient Jerusalem, the golden city whose people have given us many of our highest ideals, and from the carpenter shop of Bethlehem, sent us the Man of Men, the greatest enemy of intolerance.

The action opens near the Jaffa Gates. We’re warned, through title cards, about the hypocrites among the learned Jewish Party, the Pharisees. We see two Pharisees (Gunther von Ritzau and Erich von Stroheim) walking amongst the citizens, many of whom bow as they pass. When these men stop to pray, they expect all action around them to stop. Even their prayers speak of their presumed moral superiority over others: "Oh Lord, I thank thee that I am better than other men. Amen." The Pharisees are juxtaposed against The Uplifters in the Modern Story.

The Judean story continues with the Marriage at Cana. The Pharisees disapprove of the festivities going on the house and disapprove of the Nazarene (Christ) when as the wine runs out at the party, he performs the first miracle and turns water into wine. As if to emphasize who he is and his future, a cross is superimposed over his back while he performs the miracle. Clearly, Griffith wants us to know he is a marked man.

Jesus (Howard Gaye) comes to the aid of a woman convicted of adultery.

The Pharisees continue to disapprove of Christ and denounce him to the public. As if to illustrate why they hate him, Christ takes the moral high ground. When an adulteress is revealed and the masses want to use Moses’ law to stone her for her infidelity, it is Christ who steps forward. "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." Hearing that and realizing none of us are without sin, they drop their stones.

When next we see Christ again, he is surrounded by a crowd of children and women in the streets of Jerusalem.

The French Story is the third one introduced with the turning of the page in the great big book of Intolerance:

Another period of the past. A.D. 1572 - Paris, a hotbed of intolerance, in the time of Catherine de Medici, and her son Charles IX, King of France.

Much of the action takes place in the court of Charles IX (Frank Bennett), but the real power behind the throne belongs to the king’s mother, Catherine de Medici (Josephine Crowell). Catholic, she views the Protestant Huguenots as a threat to the kingdom. The Huguenots are led by Admiral Coligny (Joseph Henabery).

The court of Charles IX (Frank Bennett) during the French part of the film.

There is a wedding afoot to join the two parties together. Marguerite of Valois (Constance Talmadge) sister of the King, to Henry of Navarre, a Huguenot, is to wed Henry of Navarre (W.E. Lawrence).

But more attention in our story is paid to Brown Eyes (Margery Wilson) and Prosper Latour (Eugene Pallette), both Huguenots, who are also set to wed. But a foreign mercenary (A.D. Sears) serving the French king, watches their good-bye and is immediately drawn to Brown Eyes’ beauty.

They are unaware of the Royal family’s intolerance towards them and are going on about their daily lives. But the mercenary makes an attempt to grab Brown Eyes, who manages to fight him off.

But when news of rioting by Huguenots reaches the Royals, Catherine recounts a time when Catholics were slaughtered at the hands of the Huguenots and declares that their survival depends on their extermination.

Babylon is the final storyline to be introduced in Act One. Again prefaced by the turning of pages in the book, Intolerance, We are introduced right away to the high walls that surround Babylon and the massive gate that is designed to control access to the city. While these are very impressive, these are not the most famous images of the city in the movie; those don’t come to pass until the Second Act.

Babylon is a teeming city, the streets full of people, merchants, farmers, goods and animals, including elephants. Into this procession comes the Mountain Girl (Constance Talmadge), dressed in ragged clothes.

We are also introduced to The Rhapsode (Elmer Clifton), a Warrior singer - poet agent of the High Priest of Bel.

Into Babylon is brought the statue of Ishtar, the goddess of Love. Watching from above, is the priest of Bel-Marduk (Tully Marshall), supreme God of Babylon, and a rival to Ishtar.

While she’s watching the parade, The Rhapsode makes a pass at the Mountain Girl, which she rejects, but he persists, even kissing her.

The Rhapsode (Elmer Clinton) steals a kiss from the Mountain Girl (Constance Talmadge).

Meanwhile, high on the great wall surrounding Babylon, The Prince, Belshazzar (Alfred Paget), son of Nabonidus (Carl Stockdale), apostle of tolerance and religious freedom watches the parade go by below. The Princess Beloved (Seena Owen) waits for her Prince.

The Mountain Girl’s brother (Arthur Meyer) doesn’t seem to know what to do with her, so he takes her to see a Judge (Lawrence Lawlor), who decides that she should be sent to the marriage market to get a good husband.

The marriage market.

At the market, the Mountain Girl’s tomboy look and disobedient ways does not attract any bidders at first. The auctioneer (Martin Landry) even throws in a few coins to sweeten the pot. She is still stomping around the platform when the Prince arrives on scene. She apologies to him for her behavior and he presents her with his seal, giving her the right to marry or not marry if she wishes.

Down in the tenements, The Rhapsode preaches to follow the High Priest of Bel, and give up the worship of Ishtar. When the Mountain Girl comes on the scene, he once again makes an advance to her, but once again she rebuffs him. Swearing allegiance to Belshazzar, she dedicates herself to being a soldier for him.

Meanwhile, in the Love Temple consecrated on the teachings of Ishtar, young virgin prostitutes frolic in the water and lounge on couches nude and semi-nude. It is here that Belshazzar enters the chamber of the Princess and they embrace. While in the main room there is music and dancing, the Prince shows the Princess his kingdom, which extends out past the walls of the city.

In the Love Temple, prostitutes cavort in the baths.

Later, when Belshazzar goes to the Temple of the moon god, the Mountain Girl is with him.

When there are murmurs against Belshazzar in the crowd, the Mountain Girl moves to defend him by attacking the High Priest of Bel by the throat. Her assault is taken as an affront to the High Priest and to the Priesthood as a whole. Dragged off by soldiers, the High Priest orders her to be beaten to death with an iron rod. But once again Belshazzar intervenes and once again the Mountain Girl is set free.

At the end of Act One, Cyrus moves on Babylon with his weapons of war: Rock-throwers, catapults, battering rams, mighty cross-bows, burning oil and siege towers. Belshazzar calls for the defense of the city. The Mountain Girl’s brother dresses himself in a suit of mail and goes out to the wall. Not wanting to be left out, she too dons a similar suit and goes out on the precept to help defend Babylon.

The walls of Babylon from the outside.

Cyrus’ forces manage to breach the walls, but are ultimately repelled, but not before cries that Babylon is falling and the Princess is told of possible defeat. But the siege continues into the night and into the next morning, when a fresh assault comes. The Babylonians are able to overturn the giant siege towers and set some on fire, before Cyrus pulls back. Belshazzar is hailed as victorious.

By the end of the first Act, Cyrus’ siege of Babylon has failed; Christ has gotten the attention of the elders (and not in a good way); The French have decided to slaughter the Huguenots; and with the Boy in prison, the Uplifters have found The Dear One an unfit mother and have taken her child from her by warrant and by force.

The intercutting between stories for the most part works, though there are definitely moments where Act One drags, especially at the beginning. While the title cards try to explain things, much of the action is somewhat hard to follow. As an example, I think Cyrus and Belshazzar look a lot alike and it is sometimes easy to not be sure what is happening to whom.

The Huguenots and the Judean sequences seem to get the least attention, with more being spent on Babylon and the Modern story. Of the four, these seem to be the most compelling. Babylon, though we have not seen the famous shots of the city, is still visually breathtaking.

The Modern story is the easiest to interact with, perhaps the intolerance of the Uplifters is 
the easiest to recognize and the most universally recognizable to modern audiences.

Between Acts, there is a five minute intermission as audiences gird themselves for the 80+ minutes still to come.

It is with the Modern story, after another visit to the rocking cradle.

With the husband still in prison, the Dear One is confronted by the Musketeer who promises that he can get her child back. But close by the Friendless One, who is also the Musketeer’s mistress, hears their conversation with great jealousy.

After his release from prison, the Boy returns to the apartment and is informed by the Dear One of their child’s fate. Meanwhile, we see the baby lying unattended in a crib in the Jenkins Foundation hospital.

The Boy learns the fate of their child from The Dear One.

When he thinks his mistress is asleep, the Musketeer goes to visit the Dear One, who is alone in the apartment. But the Friendless One is only pretending to be asleep and follows after him with a pistol in her hand.

The Boy is informed of the Musketeer’s visit and rushes home. The mistress is listening at the door, when the Musketeer pulls the Dear One towards the bed, covering her mouth to keep her from screaming. As the Boy approaches, the mistress goes outside on the window ledge to peer inside the apartment. The Boy bursts in and fights with the Musketeer, but he is too big and strong for the Boy and the Dear One. He is only stopped when the mistress fires through the window. He manages to stumble outside where he falls and dies out on the landing.

Panicking, the mistress throws the gun in through the window and flees. When the Boy wakes up, he finds the gun and is standing over the dead body when the police arrive. A miscarriage of justice takes place and the Boy is sentenced to death by hanging, while the Friendless One looks on from the gallery.

The Friendless One (Miriam Cooper).

Later, the Kindly Officer (Tom Wilson) learns of the sentence when The Dear One returns home. This is juxtaposed to the tea party in the Jenkins library celebrating the success of their reform movement.

Wracked with guilt, the Friendless One goes to the Dear One’s apartment, but loses her nerve when she hears her talking to the Kindly Officer. The Officer finds a car to take them to the Governor’s mansion so she can plead her case. The Friendless One overhears this and hires a taxi to take her there as well.

When they arrive, they are not allowed entrance into the mansion. That’s when the Officer notices a crying Friendless One lurking nearby. It is only after the Governor’s car pulls away that the Friendless One confesses: “I killed him! I did it, I did it!” The three race after the Governor’s car, but fail to overtake it before he reaches the train station.

Meanwhile, in prison, the Boy is given his last Sacrament.

Having missed the Governor’s train, the three commandeer a race car and driver and take off after the train, eventually catching up and blocking the track until the train comes to a stop.

The Kindly Officer, the Dear One and the Friendless One approach the governor onboard the train and make a final appeal. After the Friendless One pleads her guilt to the governor, the Dear One asks him to pardon her husband. He agrees and signs a pardon and has one of his aides call the prison to stop the execution.

The gallows await The Boy.

Meanwhile, the Boy is lead up the stairs to the waiting gallows and is prepped for execution.

While the Governor accompanies the three in a car racing towards the prison, a guard answers the phone. The aide tells him frantically that the execution must stop and the guard races to the gallows. But the executioner ignores the guard and order the execution to continue.

The car comes racing up to the prison as a black hood is placed over the Boy’s head. The drama is increased by showing the three guards with their razors prepared to cut three lines when given the command.

Three guards at the ready to cut the lines on the gallows.

Inside the prison, the party races to the gallows, waving their arms and yelling for the execution to stop. The Kindly Officer bounds up the stairs and gives the pardon to the Executioner, who finally calls a halt to the procedure.

The Boy and the Dear One are finally reunited.

Back in France, Catherine conspires to have the King sign the warrant to begin the genocide. At first he refuses, but the intolerants wear him down with their kill or be killed argument. Not only does he sign the paper, he orders everyone to be killed. "By God's death, since you wish it, kill them all! Kill them all! Let not one escape to upbraid me."

Catherine (Josephine Crowell) convinces the king that
it is kill or be killed when it comes to the Huguenots.

Meanwhile, Brown Eyes and Prosper are to marry the next day, St. Bartholomew’s Day.

Outside, Brown Eyes’ house is tagged with two chalk white crosses, signifying they are Huguenots. The Mercenary, leading a group of soldiers, passes by, but notices the crosses.

The next day, Catherine has a momentary moment of doubt, but the massacre begins. Brown Eyes’ father hears the soldiers marching down the street, while unsuspecting Huguenots are slaughtered for their beliefs. Brown Eyes and her sister awaken to the sounds of Protestants pleading at their door. Their father bars the door leading to the street.

Prosper is notified of the order to slaughter by a friend who has a badge of safety with him. Prosper, now wearing the badge, takes flight across Paris in an attempt to save his loved ones.

The Mercenary, though, seizes the opportunity and goes to Brown Eyes’ home, where soldiers have used a battering ram to gain entrance. Trapping her in her room, the Mercenary undresses her and takes the now fainted girl to her bed.

After he supposedly rapes her, the Mercenary holds Brown Eyes as he runs his sword through her. Prosper arrives too late to save her and is shot in the street, dying next to her.

The slaughter continues as Catholics celebrate the vanquishing of the Huguenots.

The Babylon story shines here in Act Two. We are finally treated to the long shots of the great city, with the elephant pillars and Belshazzar's open court.

The famous Babylon set is finally seen in Act Two.

The camera swoops down into the court where dancers twirl on steps decorated with flowers.

Dancers celebrate Babylon's victory over Persia.

Meanwhile, back in the Temple of Love, prostitutes in various stages of nakedness lounge about and even engage in a lesbian orgy.

Belshazzar and the Princess engorge themselves at the feast celebrating the great victory and celebrate their love.

Meanwhile, the Rhapsode prepares to betray the prince to Cyrus. The Mountain Girl embraces the Rhapsode after he has prepared a chariot for the High Priest of Bel to lead a procession out to Cyrus’ camp. Using a password, they demand the gates be opened. The Mountain Girl is very suspicious and, after commandeering a chariot of her own, she uses the password to take chase.

The Mountain Girl commandeers a chariot and chases after The Rhapsode.

When the Priests reach Cyrus’ camp, the Mountain Girl observes them from a distance. The conspirators prostate themselves before Cyrus, who them orders his men into action. The Mountain Girl rushes back to Babylon to warn Belshazzar about the pending attack.

Back in Babylon, the Prince prepares to marry the princess. Inside the city, while Cyrus’ army approaches, revelers continue to celebrate.

Unaware of their pending demise, Belshazzar (Alfred Paget) plans to wed the Princess (Seena Owen).

The great gates open for the Mountain Girl’s chariot, but revelers delay her progress to warn the Prince. Outside, the Persian army has arrived at the wall. As the Mountain Girl rushes to warn Belshazzar, the priests are allowed through the gates, followed by Cyrus’ army. Even with the city under siege, the Prince does not believe her warnings.

Finally convinced by his own servants, the Prince leaps into action. By then the Persians have already breached the Temple of Love and the court. With only 12 guards available to protect the palace gates, the Prince returns to the Throne room.

The Mountain Girl joins in the defense of the city, but her chest is pierced by an arrow and she falls. She later dies as near her hero the Prince as she can drag her body.

Outnumbered, the Prince and Princess decide to take their own lives rather than be captured. Cyrus enters the throne room only after their suicide. Outside, the Babylonians bow down to their victor and we’re told their civilization is destroyed.

The Judean story, again, gets the shortest shrift. While the story of Christ is the best known of the four, the shortness of the screen time is more likely due to the B’nai B’rith which lobbied Griffith to make cuts to the sequence, including excising the Jews crucifying Christ.

The story resumes, after Pontius Pilate has ordered Christ’s crucifixion. Christ is still being paraded through the streets of Jerusalem, carrying the heavy wooden cross while some people pray at the sight of him and others jeer. Roman soldiers lash his back and he drops the cross. Another man picks it up and carries it for him.

This storyline concludes with a distant shot showing Christ on the Cross with a brilliant light streaming down from above.

At the end of the Judean story, Christ is crucified.

In the epilogue, Griffith gets really preachy. We’re shown a crowded yard full off prisoners, held no doubt by intolerants. And we see men engaged in pitch battle, World War I was raging at the time, only to be stopped by the heavens opening and angels descend. All the soldiers on the battlefield look up and drop their rifles.

Angels descend from the heaven to stop war.

We’re told that Instead of prison walls -- Bloom flowery fields” as the prisoners once trapped inside the walls move through them. The exterior of the prison is transformed into a country scene.

Unknown children at the end represent a Utopian society of peace and understanding.

In the finale, we see an open field with people dancing and cavorting. Two small children play happily together in what is now a Utopian state.

The film ends with the mother still rocking the cradle.


When the film was released, Intolerance was not the success Birth of a Nation had been. There are perhaps many reasons for this. America was just then ramping up to join the war in Europe, so its pacifist preaching might have fallen on deaf ears so to speak. Add to that the rather convoluted story that was being told. Cutting back and forth between stories only linked by a theme of intolerance was a unique way of storytelling and might have lost some of its audience because of that.

It also wasn’t helped by the director’s reputation as a bigot, something I’m sure kept some people away from the theaters.

Violent, it might have been the nudity or the suggestion of nudity that kept Victorian audiences away.

The film, with its nudity and brutal violence (there are multiple beheadings) would most likely receive an “R” rating by today’s standards, which may have also contributed to its failure at the box-office, as parents may have been reluctant to take their children to see it, if their  own Victorian values were not already offended.

Finally, working against the film’s success was the full orchestra that accompanied most of the screenings in big cities; an added expense that the film could not overcome. Needless to say, Griffith lost a lot of his own money on the film. He would apparently reshoot and reedit scenes from the film after its release and would even revive two of these stories into full length films: The Fall of Babylon (1919) and The Mother and the Law (1919). I’ve not seen these, nor do I know if they were in any way successful for him.

The film’s reputation over the years as improved. Considered by many to be a great though flawed achievement, Intolerance has gone through a bit of a renaissance, even showing out of competition at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival.

Having watched it, I can say that it does have its moments, especially in Act Two, where the action quickens and the cutting between stories builds towards a combined crescendo. Of the stories, once again the Modern Story is the most compelling as real tension is developed as the Governor races to the prison. You really find yourself wondering if they will arrive in time. The payoff is that they do. The Boy and the Dear One seem to be the only ones to have a happy ending here. They are the only survivors in a rather gory film with lots of slaughter. (I believe that in the revisited The Fall of Babylon, the Mountain Girl might actually survive, but in Intolerance, like most of the main characters, she dies.)

I’ve read where Griffith longed for stage-like acting from his cast, but Mae Marsh’s is still very much over the top as she had been in Birth of a Nation. She seems to bounce between puppy-dog hyperactivity to slow and sullen. Even in the close-ups, which Griffith used to allow for subtlety, Marsh is anything but.

Mae Marsh acts with puppy-dog hyperactivity throughout most of the film.

Lillian Gish’s talent is somewhat wasted here, as she never does anything more than rock the cradle.

The other actors are your standard silent players, moving from over exaggerated actions to more refined close ups. I honestly can’t say that one distinguished themselves above the others. With so many actors and so many characters, it would be hard to really stand out in this type of film.

It is interesting to note that Constance Talmadge, one of the acting Talmadge sisters, would appear in two roles in the film. Her appearance in this film marks her first major roles. For the most part she made the most of the opportunity. Constance would work in films until the coming of sound chased her from Hollywood. It should be noted that along with her sister, Norma, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, Talmadge inaugurated the tradition of placing footprints in cement outside Grauman's Chinese Theater.

As with Birth of a Nation, there are some very notable cameos. Not only does Erich von Stroheim make an appearance, but so do directors Frank Borzage, Tod Browning, and King Vidor. Additionally, actors Douglas Fairbanks, Donald Crisp, Mildred Harris and Wallace Reid also make appearances.

Intolerance is not a film to be taken lightly. Not only does it take a real time commitment, but it is not really a fun nor easy movie to follow. You have to give Griffith credit for undertaking such a project, but that alone doesn’t save it. The closest thing to a real reason to see the film is the magnificent Babylon sets. They are truly breathtakingly awesome, the sort of thing that would be CGI today, if it was attempted at all.

Intolerance is the best and worst that silent films can offer. The overlong drama is convoluted at best and while the stories are sometimes engaging, they are still uneven. The acting is what silent films are known for, which means not what we have come to expect in cinema today. But at the same time, the film has the power to amaze audiences a hundred years after its release and it will no doubt still amaze 100 years from now.

Be sure to check out other silent film reviews at our Silent Cinema Review Hub.

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