D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” made a bundle of money but was criticized for its amorality, prompted by what, to many, seemed like a glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. Griffith responded by using the money from that 1915 success to create one of the most lavishly produced films of the silent era: “Intolerance”(1916), a 168-minute morality play that intercuts four different narratives to illustrate how intolerance through the ages has been responsible for the world’s ills.
“When women cease to attract men, they often turn to reform as a second choice,” one of the intertitles reads, and reformers and the rich and powerful are targeted in this damning story of a contemporary (1915) women’s movement to upbraid the citizenry. The message is clear enough, since the richest woman in town becomes sympathetic to the reformers’ cause after a man leaves her to dance with a younger woman at a lavish soiree she gave at her own house. The domino effect is also evident. Begrudging the workers their evening dancing, the reformers push for a law banning such things; to pay for the reform movement the woman has to go to her male benefactor and tell him she needs more money, and to get it he orders a 10 percent wage cut for all his millworkers. That leads to a strike, which leads to violence, arrests, and the exodus of people looking for work in a different city.
That contemporary narrative encapsulates a love story between Dear One (Mae Marsh) and The Boy (Robert Harron), but the chain of events leads to unfortunate consequences for both of them—the obvious moral being that the reformers’ actions have made society poorer in all respects.
That story is paralleled by a narrative set in 16th-century France, which chronicles the sad chain of events that occur when religious intolerance rears its ugly head. In this story, Brown Eyes (Margery Wilson) becomes involved with a Mercenary (A.D. Sears), but as with the first narrative thread, the reformers’ and the numerous negative repercussions they cause lead to violence for society —the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Protestant Huguenots by Roman Catholic forces—and problems for the young couple.
A third narrative that Griffith weaves together involves ancient Judea circa 27 A.D., and the story of dancing and drinking in the “contemporary” narrative finds a rebuking counterpart in the Wedding at Cana, where Jesus turns water into wine, and stories of judgment are countered with the story of Jesus dispersing the crowd by telling those who would stone an adulterer, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” The juxtaposition is clear: moralists, look to yourselves first.
The most lavish narrative, at least in terms of the set construction, is one set in Babylonia in 539 B.C. As judgment becomes an issue in other narrative threads, viewers are transported to the first known legal court, based on Hammurabi’s code. In this tale, a Mountain Girl (Constance Talmadge) provides some comic relief as a wild young woman pursued by a poet known as The Rhapsode (Elmer Clifton) is first sentenced to the marriage market by the court, but then rescued from it by Prince Belshazzar (Alfred Paget), and we see both some of the same themes surface.
It’s all as obvious as a whack to the side of the head with a two-by-four, but the way that Griffith intercuts the narratives and the lavishly detailed sets make for a remarkably interesting viewing experience. Some of Griffith’s techniques are worth mentioning, too, like deep focus and crane shots that would be praised years later in Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” or the uncommon use of footnotes to explain things, which now feels slightly postmodern (Note: In the Persian empire it was required that men perspire every day). I don’t know how much repeat play a silent film like this will get, but it’s definitely worthwhile.
Sadly, it’s also a timeless film, because centuries have proven that there will always be (as there is now) intolerant people, people whose “superior” moral sense prompts them to condemn those whose behavior is different from theirs, or who fight like modern-day reformers to legislate against behaviors that they themselves find distasteful. And there will always be rich and powerful people to fund campaigns to stop behavior they find offensive. Griffith shows this, but also gets a dig in at those moralists who attacked “Birth of a Nation.”
The acting in “Intolerance” is, of course, melodramatic, as is the case with all silent films, and the intertitles leave nothing to the imagination. Everything is spelled out clearly. Nothing is alluded to, and so movie fans who appreciate subtlety will be disappointed by the method of message delivery. What’s praiseworthy, even close to 100 years after this film was made, is the attention to detail and the clever weave of stories that was way ahead of its time, but evident still in films like “Crash.”
The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer appears to be a good one. I saw no banding, no crush, and no evidence of over-scrubbing. Presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, “Intolerance” looks phenomenal considering its age, and Cohen did a good job of bridging missing or damaged frames. If you can see a scratch, then you must be using a magnifying glass.
A phenomenal score by Carl Davis that contracts and expands in its timbre to fit the scene is presented in DTS-HD MA 5.1 and DTS-HD MA 2.0. One worries that a multi-speaker mix might seem overpowering given the silent film imagery, but the scenes and sets are so epically elaborate that the 5.1 seems more appropriate than the 2.0. There’s not a lot of bass presence in either mix, but I like that, because to do so would be to push the soundtrack into the realm of the contemporary.
The best bonus feature is a 19-minute presentation by British filmmaker and silent film historian Kevin Brownlow, whose observations, histories, and anecdotes are intercut with illustrative clips from the film. Brownlow—who knows his stuff and knows this film—provides plenty of context, background, and humorous asides.
Other bonus features: a two-minute demo restoration trailer and two re-edited complete sections of the film (“The Mother and the Law”) and “The Fall of Babylon,” both with scores by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. “Mother” is especially rough, but both long (over an hour each) segments will make you appreciate the meticulous restoration.
Griffith’s “Intolerance” was way ahead of its time in terms of its camera angles, sophisticated storytelling, and elaborate set construction. And the restoration and HD treatment makes it shine.