Sunday, 22 July 2012


"The cradle endlessly rocking"

Having come under attack following the release of his 1915 masterpiece The Birth of a Nation D.W. Griffith wanted to show in his next picture that intolerance of people’s views was just as bad and created one of the seminal early silent movies, Intolerance. The story follows four completely unrelated but thematically linked stories, each with the theme of intolerance. The story given the most screen time is a contemporary story of crime and suffering. Perhaps the most famous strand is the fall of Babylon while a story of Jesus’ crucifixion and one revolving around a 16th century French massacre are given less time but are nonetheless integral to the story.

Despite its age and overlong runtime the film remains one of the great classics of the silent era and is frequently mentioned alongside some of the greatest films ever made.

For me the most compelling of the four stories was the modern tale. The Dear One (Mae Marsh) is a young, poor woman who is forced to move to the city with her aging and ill father after a group of puritans bleed the local economy dry. At the same time another young woman The Friendless One (Miriam Cooper) travels to the city in search of work, only to become corrupted by gangsters. A young man, The Boy (Robert Harron) who loses his job is the third of the central characters and he too moves, only to become involved with the gangsters. The story follows the three as they struggle to survive in a world of competing capitalists which marginalises those who have little to begin with and is surprisingly emotionally hard hitting.

The Babylonian story depicts the conflict between the Babylonians and Persians but focuses on the life of a feisty mountain girl (Constance Talmadge) who is offered as a wife at a wife market but falls for Prince Belshazzar (Alfred Paget) and becomes a warrioress.

The French story concerns the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572 during which tens of thousands of French Huguenots were killed at the hands of the Catholic Royal family. In this story a young Huguenot by the name of Brown Eyes (Margery Wilson) falls in love with a mercenary soldier (Allan Sears) on the eve of the massacre. The final story is a short history of some of Jesus Christ’s (Howard Gaye) supposed deeds which include saving a woman from a stoning and turning water into wine. 

The four stories interchange quite slowly at first. In the opening act we may stay with a thread for ten to fifteen minutes as the plot develops but in a subtle way the editing becomes much quicker as the drama unfolds. I found this to be an extremely clever and effective device as by this point you were well aware of where you were and what was happening during each strand and the film cuts between them with minimal effort. Tension is heightened as each strand builds to a climax and although I sometimes felt that I could have done without the French and Jesus stories, towards the end they became integral to the proceedings. The editing is really the star of the film. What is more impressive is that when the film was released nothing like this had ever been seen before. It was truly groundbreaking and remains impressive to this day. I could feel my heart beating in my chest as I watched.

Despite the cutting you are always aware of what story you are with due to excellent period costumes and some of the most impressive sets ever committed to film. The Babylonian set is one of the most famous and expensive in the history of film and will be recognisable to anyone who played L.A. Noire. The city walls were over 100 feet tall and contained statues the height of several men. Having completed the film Griffith was ordered to take down the set but had run out of money. As a result it stayed where it was on the corner of Hollywood Blvd and Sunset Blvd until it was finally demolished in 1919. Along with the impressive sets, the intertitles also changed from one story to another and featured appropriate backgrounds to the text. Another interesting aspect of the intertitles is that they sometimes contained a note below the spoken text which provided historical context to the onscreen action. The score was also scene specific and one of the best I’ve heard of the silent era. I’m unsure though as to whether I heard the original score as they are often lost or replaced with time. One problem I had with the shifting of time and location is that the coloured filters that Griffith used were not consistent and felt a bit haphazard.

Thankfully the film contains none of the blackface of The Birth of a Nation and the few black characters were actually played by black actors. Politics and belief are still at the very centre of the film though as Griffith takes us on a journey through time to discover where intolerance towards belief has created suffering. To me the film feels very left leaning which isn’t totally in line with Griffith’s politics but perhaps shows his willingness to point out that intolerance no matter where it comes from is wrong. It doesn’t seem like this film was an apology for The Birth of a Nation but was rather a pointed effort to tell people that their intolerance towards his beliefs were as bad as the intolerance shown in the film. One interesting aspect of the film is that in three of the four stories it is a woman who plays the central role. This is unusual even today, except in films where middle aged women try to find their 10,000th joke about the penis – yes I’m talking to you Sex and the City women.

It’s refreshing that the stories do focus on women as historically films haven’t and the struggle of women through the ages is something that is often forgotten. It is the female actors who also give the best performances here with Constance Talmadge, Miriam Cooper and especially Mae Marsh standing out. Robert Harron was also very good. Although I watch a lot of early silent film, it tends to be comedy in which acting is often not the first concern. As a result I’m often shocked and pleasantly surprised by the high standard of acting in the likes of this and The Birth of a Nation. Indeed much of the cast is recycled from that film to this including Marsh, Cooper, Harron, Lillian Gish, Spottiswoode Aitken, Walter Long and Howard Gaye. Many actors also appeared as uncredited extras in this film including the soon to be famous Douglas Fairbanks, Monte Blue, Frank Borzage, George Fawcett, Carmel Myers, Ted Shawn and perhaps most famous of all King Vidor. Around 3,000 extras were used for some of the more ambitious and impressive scenes and this really helps to give scale to the huge sets.

The standout set piece is the Battle for Babylon. For me this rivals anything the likes of The Lord of the Rings can muster as instead of thousands of GCI soldiers battling towards a CGI castle, the extras were actually there, fighting around a real set. The battle became so intense that around 60 extras had to receive medical attention for injuries received while filming the fight scenes.

The clever use of light and subtext

As well as the impressive and lavish sets, huge set pieces and ambitious scale, the film is famous for inventing false eyelashes. Real hair was used to give women in the Babylonian story the sort of eyelashes that became famous on Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. Other interesting facts include the huge cost of the film. At over $2m in 1916 this was by far the most expensive film ever made and never came close to making its money back. In addition to this and due to the huge scale many assistant directors were hired to help Griffith. These included the likes of Erich von Stroheim, Tod Browning and Woody Van Dyke all of whom became accomplished directors in their own right, directing films such as Freaks, Dracula, The Thin Man, Eskimo and Greed.

Intolerance is undoubtedly one of the gems of the early silent era and there is a lot to love about it. Its technical brilliance, its scale and its ambition are all incredible and the editing is simply sublime. There are some wonderful acting performances and a couple of interesting stories but I found myself longing to return to the modern story - by far the most compelling of the four and was also unable to get through it in one sitting due to it 177 minute run time.               



  1. This was a great essay. I had a bad impression of Intolerance, watching it in the middle of the night in my first weekend of vacation. Now I see the brilliance and the importance of the film, and the Babylon story is pure genius to me. I also agree that we could pass without the French and the Jesus stories in the end. Did you know that Lillian Gish helped in the editing process? she said that the first cut was eight hours long!
    I'm also in the blogathon, with a review of The Wind.

    1. I didn't know that about the editing. The three hour version was tough enough to get through, never mind an eight hour cut!!

      Thanks for stopping by to read.