- A short history of the movies
- Gerald Mast, Formerly of the University of Chicago
- © 1971, 1976, and 1981 by the Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.;
- FIFTH EDITION REVISED BY Bruce F. Kawin
- University of Colorado at Boulder
- 1992 Macmillan Publishing Company New York
- Maxwell Macmillan Canada Toronto
Intolerance was not one story, but four. In Belshazzar’s Babylon (sixth century b.c.), the evil high priest conspires against the wise and just ruler, betraying the city to the Persian conqueror, Cyrus; by the end of this story, every “good” character is dead. In Judea, the close- minded Pharisees intrigue against Jesus; ulti¬ mately, the gentle savior is sent to the cross. In Reformation France (sixteenth century a.d.), ambitious courtiers persuade the Catholic king to slaughter all the Protestant Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s Day, a massacre that includes the rape and murder of a young Protestant and the killing of her fiance. In twentieth-century America (the “Modern Story,” which used to be The Mother and the Law), strikers are gunned down, a Boy is falsely convicted of murder, and his wife loses her baby thanks to the meddling of a group of reformers; the facts eventually surface to save the Boy from the gallows.
Instead of telling one story after the other, as in Home, Sweet Home, Griffith tells these stories all at once, interweaving them—and 2,500 years of history—into an intellectual and emotional argument, a demonstration that love, diversity, and the little guy have always had to struggle against the overwhelming forces of hypocrisy, intolerance, and oppression. Because the colliding, streaming, juxtaposed fragments of these stories implied an idea that went beyond the “moral” of each individual story, making the whole greater than and different from the sum of its parts, Intolerance is recognized as the cinema’s first great Modernist experiment in what Sergei Eisenstein would later call intellectual (or dialectical) montage. Indeed, Griffith’s editing influenced the Soviets as much as his psychological lighting and control of mise-en-scene influenced the Germans; if The Birth of a Nation set the course for the American cinema, Intolerance did so for the Soviet cinema and Broken Blossoms for the German. The next American film to be organized this complexly would be Citizen Kane (1941); the next to be structured as a dialectical montage would be The Godfather Part II (1974).
The four stories are tied together by their consistent theme: the machinations of the selfish, the frustrated, and the inferior; the divisiveness of religious and political beliefs; the constant triumph of injustice over justice; the pervasiveness of violence and viciousness through the centuries. Also tying the stories together is Griffith’s brilliant control of editing, which keeps all the parallels in the stories quite clear, and which creates an even more spectacular climax than that of The Birth of a Nation.
In Intolerance, there are four frenzied climaxes; the excitement in each of the narrative lines reinforces the others, all of them driving furiously to their breathtaking conclusions. Griffith’s last-minute rescues cross-cut through the centuries.
And finally, tying the four stories together, much as Pippa did, is a symbolic mother-woman, rocking a cradle, bathed in a shaft of light, representing the eternal evolution of humanity through time and fate (the three Fates sit behind her), fulfilling the purpose of the creator. This woman, inspired by Whitman’s lines, “Endlessly rocks the cradle, Uniter of Here and Hereafter,” is a figure of peace, of light, of fertility (flowers bloom in her cradle at the end of the film), of ultimate goodness that will eventually triumph. She is played by Lillian Gish, who assisted Griffith in the editing of Intolerance.
The film’s bigness is obvious: the high walls of Babylon, the hugeness of the palace (and the immense tracking shot that Griffith uses to span it), the battle sequences, the care with each of the film’s periods and styles. The costumes, the lighting, the acting styles, the decor, and even the intertitles are so distinct in each of the four epochs that viewers know exactly whether they are in the squalid, drab poverty of a contemporary slum, the elegant tastefulness of the French court, or the garishness of ancient Babylon. But as with The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance is a big film that works because of its little, intimate moments. The film revolves around the faces of women—from the bubbling, jaunty, comically vital face of the Mountain Girl in the Babylonian Story to the luminous, tear-stained, soulful faces of Brown Eyes in the French Story and the little Dear One in the Modern Story. Intolerance makes it perfectly clear that social chaos takes its toll on the women, who are the helpless sufferers of its violence. Significantly, Griffith’s mother-symbol of historical continuity is also necessarily a woman. Along with the close-ups of faces, the film is equally attentive to close-ups of hands, particularly in the Modern Story: the Dear One’s wrenched hands as the callous court pronounces judgment on her husband; her hand grasping her imprisoned husband’s cap, a tender memory of his warm presence; her hand clutching one of her baby’s booties after the social uplifters have carried the infant away.
The film is also rich in the same kind of metaphoric detail found in The Birth of a Nation. The Dear One shows her humanity and tenderness as she lovingly throws grain to her chickens; when she moves to the oppressive city she keeps a single flower in her flat, a metaphor for all that is beautiful and natural and alive. (Flowers become the same kind of symbol of love and beauty in Broken Blossoms.) Yet another touching detail is the little cart pulled by two white doves in the Babylon sequence—a metaphor for the tender, fragile love between Belshazzar and his queen and for the peaceful ways of their court. After the two and the Mountain Girl have been slain, Griffith hauntingly irises out to a shot of the tiny cart and doves, a touching evocation of a beauty that was but is no longer.
Griffith’s technique is as effective at conveying hatred as it is at evoking tenderness. A deeply felt film, Intolerance makes it clear what Griffith detests: those who meddle and destroy, those who take advantage of the poor, schemers, hypocrites, and monsters of lust and power. One of Griffith’s devices of caricature is the cross-cut—particularly effective in the sequence in which he captures the cold inhumanity of the factory owner. Griffith cuts from the shots of the workers being mowed down by military or hired gunfire (violent, quick cutting, frenetic) to a shot of the owner of the factory sitting alone in his vast office (a long shot, perfectly still, that emphasizes the size of the office and the moral smallness of the big business man). The contrast clearly defines the man’s unsympathetic inhumanity to his slaughtered workers. Nine years later Eisenstein would build a whole film, Strike, out of such cross-cuts.
Although Griffith’s dislikes are clear, the intellectual cement uniting the four stories (and the rocking cradle) is a bit muddy. The film could as easily have been called “Injustice” or “Intrigue” as Intolerance. Griffith was interested in the word “intolerance” because he felt himself the victim of it. But in none of the four stories does intolerance seem so much the cause of evil as blind human selfishness, nastiness, and ambition (exactly as in The Birth of a Nation). And when the film ends with its almost obligatory optimistic vision—more superimposed angels in the heavens; the fields of the prison dissolve into fields of flowers; flowers bloom in the cradle—we once again witness an interpolated wish rather than a consequence of the film’s action. Though there may be hope in the Boy’s last-minute reprieve, it hardly seems enough to balance a whole film of poverty, destruction, suffering, and injustice.
The audience of 1916 found the film confusing and unpleasant. Unlike The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance aroused no social protest; worse, it aroused little audience interest of any kind. Perhaps the film was unpopular because it asked too much from its audience. Or perhaps the film was a victim of historical accident, its obviously pacifistic statement being totally antipathetic to a nation preparing itself emotionally to send its soldiers “Over There.” Thomas Ince’s pacifist bombast, Civilization, had made money only six months earlier. Whatever the reason, Intolerance was a financial disaster, costing Griffith all his profits from The Birth of a Nation. The failure of Intolerance began Griffith’s financial dependence on other producers and businessmen, from which he would never recover.