Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout The Ages

US (1916) Dir. D.W Griffith

One of the great things about being an artist is how it allows one to express themselves through their chosen medium, be it happiness, concern, disgust or retaliation. For the legendary D.W Griffith the latter was the motivation behind this epic fugue form film, in response to the critics who took him to task – with validation – for the rampant racism in his previous film, the controversial blockbuster The Birth Of A Nation.

Believing the naysayers were ignorant and deeming the overall enmity shown towards his film as pure intolerance towards his art and vision, Griffith decided to expand upon a short film he had already begun work on in 1914 entitled The Mother And The Law. Around this Griffith assembled stories from history which he felt mirrored the themes he was exploring in this short and put them together in what would become Intolerance.

Boasting the largest budget of a US made film to date – much of which Griffith financed himself from the profits of Birth – we are presented with four separate stories which run parallel to each other, dipping in and out them at regular intervals, punctuated by the solemn image of the Eternal Motherhood (Lillian Gish) sat next to a rocking cradle.

The four stories were originally presented on screen with their own individual tints to help differentiate between them – as if the clashing visuals were not enough of a clue – which helps during a climactic frenzied crescendo when they all begin to overlap. It’s a little difficult to go into detail of each one so a brief plot summary will have to suffice.

First up is the modern day arc born out of The Mother And The Law, which has the more complex plot. A group of moral “uplifters” seek financing from a rich spinster to help clean up an immoral town. To afford this, her brother cuts wages at the mill the family owns leading to a violent strike and many people forced to leave town. Two in particular are a young girl (Mae Marsh) who ends up living in poverty while a young man (Robert Harron) who turns to crime. They eventually marry with the chap going straight but his ex-criminal boss (Walter Long) won’t let the matter lie.  

The second tale takes us back to 27AD and recalls the betrayal of Christ (Howard Gaye) – referred to here as The Nazarene – and his crucifixion which is the shortest and less visited arc. Story number three depicts the Fall of Babylon as a result of the conflict between Prince Belshazzar of Babylon (Alfred Paget) and Cyrus the Great of Persia (George Siegmann). Finally the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572 in Renaissance France provides the backdrop for the fourth tale, telling of the persecution of the Protestant Huguenots by the Catholic royal family of Catherine de Medici (Josephine Crowell) and her son King Charles IX (Frank Bennett).

While all four tales are laced with an acerbic petulance – not to mention the word “intolerance” featuring in the intertitles with alarming regularity whether accurate or not –  Griffith injects the most vitriol in the modern day story, the morel crusading Uplifters supplanting the dissenting voices who got Birth banned or censored. Despite this there is a very pertinent message about interference based on pious outrage here, a plea for people to get their facts right first before interjecting themselves into a situation based on circumstantial evidence.

To illustrate this point, the young girl gives birth while her hubby is doing time after being framed by his ex-boss, and the Uplifters take the child away from who they think is a negligent mother. Their woes get worse which I won’t spoil here but they involved a jealous former friend in an underrated performance from Miriam Cooper.

Meanwhile Griffith adds an emotional hook to the French tale with the wedding of a Huguenot couple (Margery Wilson and Eugene Pallette) jeopardised by a royal soldier falling for the woman. In the Babylon arc, Constance Talmadge, in her first  major role, steals the show in a wonderful comic turn as a feisty mountain girl who becomes a skilled warrior.

It was of huge disappointment to Griffith when Intolerance failed to match the success of Birth; in fact it did just the opposite and lost money due to the huge budget and the studio had to be sold off two years later as a result. Despite bankrupting himself and the studio, Griffith maintained this was his magnum opus and one can see the passion and belief in every frame, more so than in Birth.

The vast expense can be found in the sets most notably the entire city of Babylon which is a spectacle in itself. Inspired by the Italian epic 1914 Cabiria Griffith was driven to go bigger and that he did with a set piece which still looks incredible today, captured with one of the earliest uses of a crane shot in a Hollywood film. The other two historical settings are equally lavish and detailed but the sheer opulence of the Babylon set dwarfs them in both stature and wonderment.

Even then the focus is still on the people at the heart of the stories which makes the modern arc the strongest and most rewarding of the lot. Griffith used many of his favourite players for the main cast (although the uncredited transitional role for Lillian Gish seems like a waste of her mercurial talent) all of whom oblige with strong performances while the newcomers leave a favourable impression. Quick trivia note: a young Douglas Fairbanks was among the extras in this film!

No-one can deny the ambition of Intolerance was met head on and it is all there on the screen. Its failure can only presumably be attributed to the non-linear narrative as everything else is to be commended. If Birth introduced the epic to Hollywood then Intolerance introduced the bombast.