D.W. Griffith's lauded storytelling expertise falters in his not so grand folly INTOLERANCE. The first three cards in the film, which is subtitled "Love Throughout the Ages," announce both INTOLERANCE's theme and its unusual and ambitious structure: "Our play is made of four separate
stories, laid in different periods of history, each with its own set of characters. Each story shows how hatred and intolerance, through all the ages, have battled against love and charity. Therefore, you will find our play turning from one of the four stories to another, as the common theme
unfolds in each."
The modern story, the only one of the four set in America, begins when Jenkins (Sam de Grasse), a rich mill owner, establishes a charity to benefit the poor. The Jenkins Foundation soon becomes a magnet for frustrated, intolerant women and an outlet for their priggish ideals.
A boy (Robert Harron) and a girl known as "the dear one" (Mae Marsh) are forced into the slums by local labor-management clashes, including a strike in which the boy's father is killed by Jenkins's company guards. The boy, who has become a small-time hood, meets, courts, and marries the girl. Now
a husband and a father, he determines to go straight but is framed by his boss (Walter Long) and winds up in prison. Wrongfully declaring the girl an unfit mother, the ladies of the Jenkins Foundation seize her baby and place it in an institution.
After the boy's release, the gangster who framed him takes an interest in the dear one and is shot to death by his jealous girlfriend (Miriam Cooper), a crime for which the boy is arrested, tried, and sentenced to death. Ultimately, the real murderer confesses and a governor's pardon saves the boy
from the gallows at the last possible moment. Boy, girl, and baby are happily reunited as the story ends.
The Judaean story, the most episodic of the four narratives, relates three key episodes in the life of the Christ (Howard Gaye): the miracle at Cana, the tale of Jesus' merciful treatment of the woman taken in adultery, and the crucifixion.
In the French episode, an account of religious intolerance in medieval France, King Charles IX (Frank Bennett), a Catholic, orders an attack on Protestants that results in the massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day.
The fourth story is set in ancient Babylon, a city governed by the peaceable and religiously tolerant King Nabonidus (Carl Stockdale) and his son Belshazzar (Alfred Paget). The intolerant and traitorous High Priest of Bel (Tully Marshall) is in conspiracy with the Persian ruler Cyrus (George
Siegmann), who aspires to conquer Babylon. The Persians' first attack on the city fails, but as the Babylonians are rejoicing in their victory Cyrus strikes again. This time the Persians are successful. Among the casualties are the prince and his princess, Attarea (Seena Owen), who commits
suicide, and a spunky mountain girl (Constance Talmadge), who dies fighting to defend Babylon and its ruler and her idol Belshazzar.
Rather than telling these stories successively, the film jumps back and forth among its quartet of tales, punctuated intermittently by a long, static shot of a woman (Lillian Gish) eternally rocking an old-fashioned wooden cradle.
Griffith had virtually completed THE MOTHER AND THE LAW, which he intended to release as a feature film of conventional length, when he decided to combine it with three period stories in an epic motion picture called INTOLERANCE. After many months of work and unprecedented expense (the movie
boasted a cast of thousands and, in its Babylon section, the largest set ever to have been created for the screen), INTOLERANCE was released on September 5, 1916.
Critics were awed but audiences were confused and disappointingly meager. As a result, Griffith was to go into, and remain in, debt for many years. In 1919 he attempted to cut his losses by re-releasing reworked versions of the Babylon and modern stories as two solo features: THE FALL OF BABYLON
and THE MOTHER AND THE LAW.
Did Griffith produce INTOLERANCE as self-inflicted penance for the racial intolerance he was accused of flaunting in THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915)? Or as an attack on the intolerance of those who considered BIRTH a racist film and attempted to block its exhibition? The absence of even a single
black face among INTOLERANCE's mammoth cast would seem to support the latter hypothesis. Griffith was more sensitive to intolerance in others than in himself. But even if he had been able to fulfill his thematic ambitions more successfully than he did on this occasion, the notion of making a movie
about prejudice was an ill-advised one. One of the reasons that INTOLERANCE is less watchable than even the radically truncated version of von Stroheim's GREED (1924) is simply that greed is a sexier vice than intolerance.
INTOLERANCE's sets, costumes, compositions, and mass deployment of bodies in motion are often impressive, especially in the battle of Babylon sequence. The parallel editing in the final two reels is undeniably exciting (though not as rapturously stirring as some critics contend). Constance
Talmadge's spirited performance as the Babylon mountain girl is extremely winning. Despite all this, INTOLERANCE is something of a chore to watch. When too many characters and too much plot (multiplied by four) are woven into a fast-moving picture of epic length, the spectator is likely to emerge
dazed and exhausted.
It may be an exaggeration to state that practically everyone considers INTOLERANCE one of the greatest films ever made and practically no one likes it much. Suffice it to say that one would be hard-pressed to find anybody who loves the film the way some people love GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) or THE
RED SHOES (1948) or even CITIZEN KANE (1941). Griffith himself went on to make more affecting movies, among them BROKEN BLOSSOMS (1919) and WAY DOWN EAST (1920). But in cinema's critical circles, points have always been awarded for high ambition, extraordinary effort, and honorable intentions.
Perhaps that is the secret of INTOLERANCE's reputation. (Graphic violence, nudity.)
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