Starring: Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, Constance Talmadge, Elmer Clifton, Alfred Paget, Seena Owen, Margery Wilson, Eugene Pallette, Miriam Cooper, Walter Long, Lillian Gish, Bessie Love, Spottiswoode Aitken, Josephine Crowell, Joseph Henabery, Tully Marshall
Four stories connected by an image of a woman (Gish) eternally rocking her baby are intercut to tell how love struggles against the intolerance of others. In ancient Babylon, a mountain girl (Talmadge) sold as a slave gets caught up in the tumult of war. In Judea, Jesus is betrayed by hypocritical Pharisees. In Paris, 1572, a young Hugenot couple prepare to marry unaware of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre about to engulf them. In modern times, a poor young girl (Marsh) and her beloved (Harron) are harassed by social do-gooders and an envious neighbour (Cooper).
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Although misunderstood and largely ignored outside of the big US cities on its initial release, Intolerance is now largely remembered for its humungous running time (around 3 hours when most film’s released would have run to an hour if that), the mammoth impact and influence it had on other film-makers, it’s whopping cost and epic production values and the huge role-call of future Hollywood talent employed (some for the first time) in small acting or behind the scenes roles.
The film was intended as director Griffith’s personal response to critics of his previous epic The Birth of a Nation, a film that was glowingly supportive of the Ku Klux Klan and criticised for its racist and incendiary tone. Intolerance never matches up to its creator’s lofty reply that racism was merely people’s intolerance to other people’s views (i.e. his own toward black people).
That debate can run on and on (and, concerning screenings of Nation around the world, it still does), but there is no doubt this is an exceptional, ambitious, stunning if not always successful piece of film-making, not merely in terms of narrative scope but also in technical, cinematic terms (the judicious editing, camera-work that includes an early crane shot as we swoop into Babylon and his skilled direction of actors).
Griffith had slogged away at the old Biograph studios for years churning out hundreds of short subjects that grew in technical sophistication and developed such techniques as using close-ups to show emotion, cross-cutting between scenes for suspense, using irises to focus on action and fading away to leave a scene. This film, like Nation, brings together all of these cinematic styles and much more to create a complete, modern ‘film’ and there is enough of Intolerance to show it all.
As a master of editing, Griffith had no peers at this time and the final moments, a frantic escalation of action where all 4 stories conclude (most memorably with Marsh saving her lover from the scaffolds) are still excitingly realised.
Griffith’s stock company of actors are all mostly in check and deliver career defining performances, but the two that matter the most here are Marsh and Talmadge, both of whom are remembered for these turns. Talmadge, in particular, is amusing and fiery as the mountain girl and her scenes proved so popular with audiences that Griffith edited them together and filmed a new ending and released the whole thing as a separate film (The Fall of Babylon).
The main problem with the film, today as well as then, is that Griffith’s reach extends his grasp. He cannot control four stories with equal verve so, consequently, the middle two stories suffer from a lack of exposure and jar the flow of the film (Babylon and the modern story are clearly the focuses). Cutting them out and reducing the meandering length of the film might have helped, but he is to be admired for trying to tackle several thousand years of history in one movie.
But Intolerance’s legacy cannot be underestimated.
In post-revolution Russia, with a parlous film industry, young film-makers cut the massive amount of footage and re-edited the scenes together to produce new meanings between scenes. Thus was born the montage cinema of Eisenstein and Virtov (that would influence other film-makers such as Hitchcock, who would go on to influence just about everyone else).
The cast and production credits list directors such as Raul Walsh, Frank Borzage, Todd Browning, W.S. Van Dyke, King Vidor, Erich von Stroheim, Allan Dwan, Victor Fleming and actors like Donald Crisp, Douglas Fairbanks and Wallace Reid, all of whom would gain invaluable experience of film-making here and take this with them into a young Hollywood.
It is for these reasons that this unwieldly, sometimes boring but always fascinating film merits being imprinted on the memory.