D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance
Its Genesis and Its Vision (1986)
by William M. Drew
On a night in late summer, 1916, under the approaching shadow of war, D.W. Griffith first presented his epic motion picture, Intolerance, to the public at the Liberty Theatre in New York City. Prodigious in its dimensions, Griffith’s masterpiece was the most spectacular achievement of the new medium of the cinema, perfecting every existing film technique into a dynamic, innovative structure.
A milestone in the history of the arts, Intolerance is a culmination of Griffith’s cinematic genius which transformed the motion picture from an inventor’s toy into a new art form. Unlike many of his other major works such as The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance is an original conception which does not derive from any direct literary source. Because of its advanced cinematic techniques, it became a paradigm for filmmakers throughout the world. At the same time, its power in projecting a social-historical vision provided a precedent for world epic cinema. Griffith’s vision evolved not only from the facts of history and his previous works, but also from his knowledge of the arts. Thus, Intolerance climaxes a century of artistic activity in music, painting, theater, poetry and fiction even as it points the way toward the new experimental artistic language of the twentieth century.
In its interpretation of human events, the 1916 epic vividly reflects the social and political thought of its day. The film is imbued with the spirit of the Progressive movement which sought to fulfill the democratic promise of America set forth in Jeffersonianism. Indeed, the film’s subsequent fate in the United States and in foreign nations provides a barometer of the social and political currents of the early twentieth century.
Griffith’s Approach to Research
To coordinate the enormous amount of data for Intolerance, in 1915 Griffith established the first research department in the American film industry. Headed by R. Ellis Wales, the new studio department provided Griffith with “quick-and-ready access to books, magazines, drawings, sketches, maps, statistics and photographs.” However, he was not content to rely solely on the department and “continued to perform the research himself.”
Griffith encouraged members of his company to participate in the research and to discuss ideas with him. He felt that if the cast and crew shared in the compiling of data they would become more enthusiastic about the project. From a practical standpoint, it relieved him of the burden of gathering all the necessary documentation. Lillian Gish, who contributed to the research for the French Story, recalls: “I read no other books but those dealing with the various periods of history portrayed in the movie.” Assistant cameraman Karl Brown helped by studying texts on ancient history for the Babylonian Story. He also remembers Griffith’s tireless pursuit of research:
The desks… were piled high with books. It would take a full day for anyone to thumb through them even in the most cursory manner. So the significant pictures were cut out and mounted in a scrapbook for ready reference. Then there was another scrapbook, and another, full to the bulging point.
Although he clearly projects the viewpoint of a Protestant republican democracy, Griffith’s criticism of a royalist, hierarchical tyranny is balanced, as he acknowledges intolerance on both sides. In a scene at court, Coligny, like Catherine, wishes his opponents would think as he does. Griffith presents Catherine’s rationalization for the massacre in a flashback depicting Huguenot brutality in the Michelade at Nimes in 1567, when Protestants destroyed religious artifacts and killed Catholics. When Lillian Gish expressed shock at Catherine’s villainy, he replied:
Don’t judge. Just be thankful it isn’t you committing some black deed. Always remember this, Miss Lillian —circumstances make people what they are. Everyone is capable of the lowest and the highest. The same potentialities are in us all —only circumstances make the difference.
Griffith saw the potential in motion pictures to parallel the press in dramatizing the corruption and abuses exposed by the muckrakers. He stated in his pamphlet attacking censorship that “the moving pictures are, in fact, a pictorial press, performing in a modern and entertaining and instructive manner all the functions of the printed press.” As Lillian Gish confirmed, he saw his own role “as similar to a newspaper editor, in a position to affect not only his country but also the world … and he took an editor’s responsibility for his point of view.” On a worldwide scale, he viewed the motion pictures as having a greater potential for impact than language, whether printed journalism or the oratory of statesmen, because images in films “have gone beyond Babel, beyond words. We have found a universal language, a power that can make men brothers and end war forever.”
Intolerance did not match The Birth of a Nation in popularity, closing after a run of only eight days in Denver. Lillian Gish recalls that, after a surge of popularity for several months, attendance had declined during the last weeks of the film’s run at the Liberty, a pattern that was repeated in other cities where Intolerance had lengthy runs. “It was obvious to us all that the film was failing,” she states.
The unraveling of the Progressive consensus and its effect on Intolerance foreshadowed the far-reaching impact of the film on Griffith’s career. While he continued to produce major artistic triumphs after Intolerance, “Anything following [it] … still the biggest picture ever made, was liable to be anti-climactic.” Nevertheless, the primary reason that most of his later films dealing with social, political and historical themes failed to attain the commercial success of The Birth of a Nation was Griffith’s continuing allegiance to Progressivism, the very quixotism that, in the context of the times, had blunted the popularity of Intolerance.
According to Sarris, “there is more of eternity in one anguished expression of Mae Marsh or Lillian Gish than in all of Griffith’s flowery rhetoric on Peace, Brotherhood, and Understanding.” Predictably, Sarris dismisses Intolerance as consisting of “platitudinous generalities” and fails to see any meaning or philosophical motif in the linking of the four stories.
Paradoxically, commentators like Cook and Sarris who deplore its content consider The Birth of a Nation to be Griffith’s most significant epic, a view prompting their lengthy analyses of the film. Invariably in their reviews of the Civil War-Reconstruction film, they arrive at generalizations which they apply as yardsticks to measure his entire work. Mast, for example, infers from Griffith’s defense of the Old South against the Northern incursion that he was a champion of the established order. Cook, in looking at Griffith’s assimilation of Thomas Dixon’s melodramatic formulas in the second half of The Birth of a Nation, claims that he saw human history in terms of a “dime novel.”
Sarris views the director as a narrow-minded provincial unable to see the larger picture. Had these analysts evaluated The Birth of a Nation within the context of his entire work, recognized Intolerance as, in Lillian Gish’s words, “his monument, the measure of the man himself,” or weighed the influence of his cultural heritage, his personal background and his times in forming his vision, perhaps their assessment of Griffith would have been more sympathetic. Indeed, those commentators who are more favorable toward Griffith show a greater appreciation for his work as a whole.
Credits for Intolerance
(Also known under the titles The Mother and the Law, A Sun-Play of the Ages, and Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages)
Directed by David Wark Griffith. Produced and distributed by the Wark Producing Corporation. Associate producer: Harry E. Aitken. Written for the screen by D.W. Griffith. Titles by Griffith, assisted by Anita Loos and Frank E. Woods. Edited by Griffith with James and Rose Smith. Photography by G.W. “Billy” Bitzer. Assistant cameraman: Karl Brown. Set design by Frank Wortman and Walter L. Hall. Assistant direc¬ tors: George Siegmann, W.S. Van Dyke, Erich von Stroheim, Edward Dillon, Tod Browning, Joseph Henabery, Allan Dwan, Monte Blue, Elmer Clifton, Mike Siebert. Research assistants: R. Ellis Wales, Joseph Henabery and Lillian Gish. Advisors to the Judean Story: Rabbi Myers and Father Dodd. Dances staged by Ruth St. Denis. Costumes by the Western Costume Company. Musical score arranged by Joseph Carl Breil and Griffith. Filmed at the Fine Arts Studio, Hollywood, California, and various locations in Southern California from 1914 to 1916. Previewed at Riverside, California, on August 6, 1916. Opened for its world premiere on September 5, 1916 at the Liberty Theatre in New York City. Original length: 14 reels (13,700 ft.); later cut to 13 reels (11,811 ft.) Original running time approximately 3 hours, 30 minutes; present running time of most prints is 2 hours, 50 minutes (at 16 f.p.s.). Cost of production has been estimated to have been from $386,000 to $2,000,000.
Years later, noted film historian Theodore Huff was equally enthusiastic, describing Intolerance as the greatest motion picture ever produced. In its original form and properly presented, it is a masterpiece of creative conception and execution which ranks with such works of art as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Rembrandt’s Descent from the Cross, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the sculptures of the Parthenon, or with works of literature such as Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the poetry of Walt Whitman or Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Despite these accolades, some writers over the years have tended to disparage the film, acknowledging its technical importance but viewing its structure as unwieldy and its theme as confused. What has been lacking is a more extensive study of the film’s meaning and intellectual lineage. Although there are innumerable accounts of the facts surrounding the production of Intolerance, facts which have become legendary in the annals of the cinema, there has been no detailed study of Griffith’s treatment of historic events, the artistic and political influences that formed his vision, or the thematic relationship of the 1916 epic to his other works. Since this film is the key to Griffith’s entire work, crystallizing themes featured in his other films, and a landmark in man’s efforts at self-expression, it is the purpose of this study to discover, through a comprehensive analysis of its background, the true significance of Intolerance in the history of the arts.
William M. Drew June 1983