Released 5 September 1916, D.W. Griffith’s 3.5-hour Intolerance was created to counter all the criticism he’d weathered for The Birth of a Nation the previous year. However, contrary to popular belief, he didn’t make it as some nitrate apology letter. The themes and title were intended as a response to critics he felt had been intolerant of him.
This was my 838th silent (out of 1,125 seen to date), and, speaking as someone steeped in silent cinema, this isn’t exactly a film I’d recommend as an ideal first silent, or even one of the first 25 or 50. It’s the kind of film you really need a solid grounding in silent cinema to understand, let alone want to sit down and watch.
This very ambitious film takes the form of four different stories, all woven together by a common theme of intolerance. The stories are intercut more and more frequently as the overall story progresses, to show their commonalities and parallels. Each story has its own color tint.
First, and perhaps most famously, is the story of the fall of Babylon. Next up on the timeline is the story of Jesus, starting with his first miracle at Cana. The third story relates the events surrounding the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France. Last is a contemporary story.
Between each shift, The Eternal Motherhood (Lillian Gish) rocks a cradle, symbolizing the passage of time. I’m surprised she wasn’t given a meatier role, since she was Griffith’s favorite leading lady.
Though it comes last in the overall timeline, we open with the modern story. Miss Mary Jenkins, a wealthy spinster, needs more money to finance her various charities. Her greedy, profits-driven brother cuts her a check, but it soon becomes clear that’s not enough. In response, he institutes a 10% pay cut for his workers, who start a strike. This strike is put down most brutally.
Many former employees move to the big city for new jobs, The Boy and The Dear One’s father among them. Suffering in poverty, The Boy turns to crime out of desperation.
The Boy and The Dear One meet and begin dating. Since it was a huge scandal for a woman to be caught alone with an unrelated man, they quickly marry. When the Boy tries to quit crime, his boss, The Musketeer, frames him as a thief, and he goes to prison.
What a vile pack of old biddies with nothing better to do than to meddle in strangers’ lives!
After The Boy’s release, The Dear One turns to The Musketeer for help in getting her baby back. The Musketeer has an ulterior motive, and tries to rape her. In the ensuing fight, The Musketeer’s girlfriend shoots him and escapes.
The cops come to the tenement, and judge The Boy guilty through circumstantial evidence. Keep in mind, this was before Miranda Rights! The Boy is arrested, sent back to prison, and condemned to the gallows. Can he be saved in time?
I think it’s fair to assume just about everyone is familiar with at least the basics of the life of Jesus. This section begins with his first miracle by the wedding at Cana (turning water into wine), then goes through some of the other Biblical events, ending with the Crucifixion.
Third to be introduced is the French story, which shows the bad blood between Catholics and Huguenots in the time of Charles IX. This story really suffers from cast bloat. So many characters are introduced so quickly, it’s hard to remember who’s whom!
Though the Jesus story is the shortest of the four, it’s actually the French story which feels the most undeveloped. Huge chunks of time also transpire between each segment. When the massacre begins, it’s hard to feel gut-wrenching anguish, since we didn’t get to know these characters at all. This story is just kind of there.
Finally, we get to the decadent Babylonian story. There are rival factions at work, as well as a storyline about the “incorrigible” Mountain Girl getting punished by being sent to the marriage market so a “good husband” can “tame” her. Belshazzar saves her, but she later gets in trouble again by fighting against Belshazzar’s rival.
Then King Cyrus of Persia moves in with his army, and the fall of Babylon commences.
Overall, I liked this film a lot better the second time around. It does have weaknesses, and its style won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s a very important part of film history.