Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Movie Review: INTOLERANCE (D.W. Griffith, 1916)

No, the above is not a misprint. Nicky and I have put a few REAL "classic movies" into our Netflix queue, and I'll be reviewing them here. We lead off with an object of pious reverence by many film historians, D.W. Griffith's follow-up to the bank-breaking The Birth of a Nation (1915). Incensed at the "shocking... shocking!" accusation that Birth was virulently racist, Griffith created this lengthy rumination on the subject of intolerance throughout history, from the era of ancient Babylon to mid-1910s America. In all honesty, "The Modern Story" is more of an old-fashioned melodrama than anything else, with little true prejudice on view (apart from a few shots at the pretensions of "do-gooders" who are bound and determined to clean up a city, whether the objects of their pity want to be "reformed" or not). Fear not, however, as Griffith unspools three (!) other distinct narratives at the same time as he is telling his present-day tale. "The Judean Story" is, of course, the story of Jesus Christ and the Pharisees, and Griffith spends relatively little time in treading that familiar ground (though extant versions of the film apparently cut some of the original footage out -- the film ran over four hours when it premiered). "The French Story" details the horrific St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 16th-century France, with a doomed romance between a Huguenot soldier and a Huguenot girl named "Brown Eyes" (Griffith was big on giving his characters abstract names) thrown in for good measure. Both of these tales obviously relate directly to the film's overall theme. The fourth narrative, "The Babylonian Story," does as well, but the rivalries between jealous votaries of various gods, which left ancient Babylon open to conquest by Cyrus' army of Persians, frankly pale next to the eye-popping, justifiably famous sets, the thousands of extras, and the half-comic, half-tragic performance by Constance Talmadge as the feisty Mountain Girl, a grown-up, ancient-Babylonian version of Gosalyn Mallard whose attempt to warn King Belshazzar of the impending attack goes for naught. Linking these stories is the relentlessly repeated motif of Lilian Gish rocking a cradle that is meant to represent the eternal nature of human passions, joys, and sorrows (that, or the somewhat cynical theme that humans never really learn anything, despite constant returns to the "cradle" by new generations).

Intolerance cost $2 million to make -- over $40 million in present-day dollars -- and was such a flop that it ruined Griffith's Triangle Studios. It's not hard to understand why contemporary audiences were baffled by the movie. The switching back and forth between plot lines gets ever more frantic as time wears on, and a number of the title cards, giving details on the French Wars of Religion and the competing religions of Babylon, bear rather arch, pedantic text. The techniques of effective film narrative were still being developed at the time, and Griffith evidently saw the overlapping-story conceit as the next major step up the ladder. In the intervening 93 years, very few directors have dared to take that step with him.

For all of Intolerance's flaws and overwrought performances, actually seeing it for the first time was a treat. After its failure, Griffith chopped off the modern and Babylonian tales and released them as separate features, meaning that restorers had quite a job on their hands putting the pieces back together. The seams show, but they don't really wreck the viewing experience. Even when seen in faded black and white, the Babylonian sets and set-pieces really are amazing, especially when you consider that the first film with a storyline -- never mind an elaborate set -- predated Intolerance by only 13 years. The ending of the film is also memorable, as Griffith uses some early "movie magic" to simulate a host of angels descending upon what appears to be a World War I battlefield and pleading for peace. If you are interested in the history of movies -- not to mention tired of modern movies that seem to have less and less respect for the intelligence of the audience -- you really should see Intolerance at least once.


Chuck Munson said...

I shouldn't have checked the latest in my blogs I follow at work, but couldn't help responding to that huge hook (at least for me) that you threw out with DW Griffith and Intolerance. I have wanted to see this movie for a long time. I think anyone with even a smidgen of interest in movies in general owe it to themselves both as a lesson and a treat to see films like both these films that are arguably the most famous of Griffith's films (at least the ones that get bantied about the most). And yet, I would argue when you look at them together, they represent both the best and the worst of film making in general. Birth was the first epic and a box office smash. It was also, as you put it in best Casablanca-style, at best a seeming apology for those little "excesses" in treatment of those who-don't-look-like-you. So Intolerance, while visually stunning with sets and casts of thousands, is the in-response morality play and stylistic tirade that was a box-office dud with a thud. Wish I had time to enumerate the times that producers/directors/actors have repeated this pattern in a nothing-new-under-the-sun manner. Pieces of history worth watching to see where it all began.

Watch movies said...

Even though this movie was a flop in those days, let's never forget the great contribution of D.W Griffith in those years and after, until this time, in his spirit and movie-loving.