Classics of the Silent Screen – By Franklin Joe (1959)
Intolerance – 1916
In characterizing it as “the greatest film of all time” and “the only film fugue,” the late Professor Theodore Huff, one of the world’s leading film historians, went on to say that Intolerance was perhaps the only film entitled to take its place as an individual work of art alongside Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the works of Michelangelo, and so on.
These are big statements — but statements not made without a great deal of thought. Is it possible to single out any one film, and say “This is the greatest”? Frankly I don’t know. But if I were asked, “What film is greater than Intolerance?” I couldn’t provide an answer.
Intolerance never was, and probably never will be, a popular box office film. It was way ahead of its time in 1916. It’s still ahead of its time today. And certainly no director exists today with the genius and vision of D. W. Griffith, who conceived and directed Intolerance.
Even if one did, it is unlikely that any studio would back him up and give him a really free hand. It has been reliably estimated that to remake Intolerance today just the way it was made in 1916, but with the addition of a sound track, would cost in excess of thirty million dollars!
In this mighty thirteen-reel film (cut down from many times that length) Griffith attacked intolerance and bigotry through the ages. He did so via four separate stories. A modern story, based on an actual case of labor troubles and the problems of a young couple (Mae Marsh and Robert Harron) came to its climax with the husband condemned to death for a murder he didn’t commit. A biblical story concerned the betrayal and -crucifixion of Christ. France in the Middle Ages provided the setting for a third story (starring Marguery Wilson and Eugene Pallette) of religious intolerance under the regime of Catherine De Medici. And the fourth and foremost story was concerned with the enmity of Belshazzar of Babylon and Cyrus the Persian, and culminates in the Fall of Babylon. Constance Talmadge, Seena Owen, Elmo Lincoln, Wallace Beid, Elmer Clifton, Alfred Paget, Tully Marshall and many other big-stars-to-be were featured in this episode.
Griffith didn’t tell his stories episodically, one by one, but told them simultaneously, in parallel action. He began by devoting long stretches of film to each story, to establish the period and the characters. Then as the film progressed, he cut more rapidly from story to story to emphasize the injustices common to all eras. And as all four stories reached their climaxes, he cut with fantastic fluidity from one story to another—from Cyrus’ chariots racing to destroy Babylon to Catherine’s troops about to massacre the Huguenots, and back to the modern story with the condemned boy starting his walk to the gallows. Not only was the idea vast in conception, but it was magnificent in execution, each cut almost mathematically planned long shot of one story to long shot of another, closeup to close-up, and so on. The rhythm and tempo increased until, in the words of Iris Barry, it was “like watching history pour across the screen like a cataract.”
Intolerance was, and is, the most advanced example of film technique. Almost every device you see on the screen today came from, or was perfected in, this picture. But as entertainment it baffled and exhausted its audiences, which were not only unused to social indictments, but just couldn’t grasp the meaning of it all. Today’s audiences are better able to understand it, but they are no less exhausted by it.
In terms of purely popular entertainment, its Babylonian sequence came off best. The sheer massiveness of the sets have never been equalled. Griffith almost built a full-scale replica of old Babylon!
The big battle scenes remain the most enormous, and the most expertly directed, in all movie history. Despite a screen full of huge scaling towers and thousands of battling extras, Griffith so unerringly composed his shots that the eye of the spectator was automatically concentrated on the detail he wanted noticed. The excitement and realism of these scenes have never been surpassed—from overall grandeur to individual vignettes, such as those horribly convincing medium shots of heads being lopped off in the course of battle!
Intolerance had a profound influence on film-making everywhere. The Russians, for instance, invited Griffith to come over and take charge of their entire movie industry. And, though he declined, the film was used as a sort of textbook to instruct their top directors—Eisenstein, Pudovkin, etc.—all of whom showed quite evidently in their films how much they had been influenced by Griffith, and indeed, admitted that influence quite openly.
Many of the men who worked on the film as Griffith’s assistants—W. S. Van Dyke, Erich von Stroheim, and others—went on to become top directors, while almost all of its players subsequently became top-ranking stars. Mae Marsh’s performance in it, beautifully and sensitively underplayed, remains one of the supreme performances of the silent screen. Everybody in it, from Walter Long and Miriam Cooper, to Lillian Gish (seen only as a woman rocking a cradle, in the symbolic scenes linking the separate stories), was just right, but, next to Mae Marsh, the biggest hit was Constance Talmadge.
As the rowdy mountain girl in the Babylonian sequence, she displayed the wonderful, almost Fairbanksian, sense of fun that was soon to make her one of the screen’s top comediennes. In fact, everybody benefitted from Intolerance but its creator, Griffith. The enormous production costs ate up all his profits from The Birth of a Nation, and most of his other resources as well. And it was such a resounding box office flop that he spent years paying off every nickel of the debts it incurred. Its failure would have stopped a lesser man dead in his tracks—but Griffith went right on making movies, good commercial ones to make money and the occasional film made for art alone (such as the unusual and sensitive Isn’t Life Wonderful?) which lost it all again.
Griffith had a colorful, if checkered, career ahead of him, and many more great films. But he was never again to make a film of the stature and magnitude of Intolerance. Nor, for that matter, was anyone else.