INTOLERANCE (1916) – By Seymour Stern – Special Supplement to Sight and Sound 1946

Special Supplement to Sight and Sound

An Index to the Creative Work of David Wark Griffith

By Seymour Stern – September 1946

INTOLERANCE (1916)

Produced at the Fine Arts Studios, Hollywood, by the Wark Producing Corporation (D. W. Griffith). Directed by D. W. Griffith. Original idea and scenario : Griffith. Scenario of the ” Modern Story (The Mother and the Law) : adapted by Griffith, in part, from the Report of a Federal Industrial Commission ; and in part, from the records of the Stielow murder case. Under the personal supervision of D. W. Griffith, each of the following items : settings ; costume designs ; photographic style and technique ; research ; architectural conceptions of the City of Babylon (with motifs suggested by the sun-buildings and causeway of the Panama-Pacific Exposition at San Francisco, 191 5). Research on the Judean story : Rabbi L. Myers.* Construction supervisor and chief engineer on the Babylonian sets : Frank Wortman. Photography  G. W. Bitzer and Karl Brown. Assistant directors : George Siegmann, W. S. Van Dyke, Joseph Henaberry, Erich von Stroheim, Edward Dillon, Tod Browning. Chief second assistant directors : Ted Duncan, Mike Siebert.

Editing : Griffith. Cutters : James and Rose Smith. Music : original score by Joseph Carl Breil and Griffith. Total production-time : 22 months, 12 days, divided as follows : shooting-time—20 months, 12 days ; editing—2 months. Release length : app. 13,700 feet (13! reels) or in old-time, silent film running-time, 3 hours.f World premiere and release under auspices of Wark Distributing Corporation (D. W. Griffith): Tuesday, September 5, 1916, Liberty Theatre, New York City.

Intolerance
Intolerance

THEME AND CONTENT

The Historical-Philosophy of Intolerance

Briefly stated, the theme of Intolerance is the emotional basis of history—or, more specifically, intolerance is the cause of wars and is a prime mover of the world in all ages. Intolerance is explicitly defined in sub-titles as the hatred and rejection of others, who fail to “think as we do” (sub-title from the Medieval Story). It is depicted as the emotion, the policy, and also the weapon, of fanatical rulers, dictators, individuals and masses; of power-loving priesthoods and ruling classes; of revolutionary, counter-revolutionary and other insurgent groups, in all ages, and everywhere. It is further depicted as being opposed to democracy, freedom of thought and to liberalism—above all, to democracy.Thus the motivation of human affairs, of world history, is, according to Griffith, basically emotional; and the motivating emotion is intolerance. To intolerance must be attributed, therefore, certain major actions of mankind —for example, massacre and persecution and torture and war. Other causes, political or economic, or both, as the case may be, being equal, intolerance still is the deciding factor in its primeval power over the behaviour of men and the course of events.

Intolerance
Intolerance

Intolerance is named and picturized as the fundamental force, the emotional evil, which hardens men’s hearts and paralyzes their minds; it plays its chief role in the zero-hours of history, the hours of decision, when it casts the die, other things being equal, for or against the wars, which determine the fate of empires, nations, peoples, individuals, societies, of whole civilizations. This force, timeless and universal, is a thing of basic evil and basic power, or, as a sub-title in the Medieval Story puts it, it is “Intolerance, burning and slaying”. And in the Babylonian story, Cyrus repeats the “world-old prayer (of intolerance) … to kill, kill, kill …”

The role of intolerance in shaping human destiny through the ages, amid all peoples, is inescapable.- Its recognition as a prime mover of the world-process is essential, therefore, to a correct understanding of the meaning and method of history. Hence, the tragedy of history is the conquest by intolerance of the one and only significant counter-force opposed to it—love, in its broader meaning. The epic of intolerance, therefore, is also the drama, to cite a thematic sub-title, of “Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages”.

The above summarizes the theme of Griffith’s film, as expressed in its content, both the images and the subtitles. Or, as Huntly Carter wrote, “In Intolerance, we have Griffith’s favourite theme of intolerance of human beings to human beings.”

Intolerance
Intolerance

The Four Stories

To illustrate the philosophy of history as thus outlined, Griffith chose four stories, separate in time and space, but interrelated by the common theme, and projected through cross-cutting in parallel sequence. The four stories of Intolerance are as follows:

  • (1) The Judean story, or the life of Jesus of Nazareth; originally entitled, The Nazarene (27 A.D.);
  • (2) the Medieval Story, or the war between the Catholics and the Huguenots, in sixteenth century France (1572 A.D.);
  • (3) the Fall of Babylon, in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar—an epic of the Ancient World (539 B.C.);
  • (4) the Modern Story (The Mother and the Law), dramatizing the conflict between Capital and Labour in modern times (c. 1914);
  • (5) at the end of the four stories, a prophetic epilogue.

The recurrent transition between the separate stories, which rotate alternately one with the other in cross-cutting and parallel-action, is accomplished in the early reels of the film by the use of a symbolic image of the Woman Who Rocks the Cradle, which appears in connection with the lines of Walt Whitman: “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking” and “… endlessly rocks the cradle, Uniter of Here and Hereafter”. In the later sequences, the lighting in this symbolic refrainshot somewhat changes, and the figures of three old women—the Three Fates, seated at their cosmic spinning-wheel, appear sharply visible, as emergences out of Space, in the background.

Lillian Gish in Intolerance (1916) - The Cradle Endlessly Rocking
Lillian Gish in Intolerance (1916) – The Cradle Endlessly Rocking

The Woman continues in the foreground, rocking the Cradle of Humanity, unaware of the Fates behind her. However, toward the climax, as the tempo rises and the inter-scene changes become more abrupt, this shot ceases to appear: the transition from each one of the four parallel stories to the other becomes direct, quick and violent: it is freed of all and any connective or intermediary shots. It is accomplished then without recourse to fades, lap-dissolves, “mix” photography, wipe-offs or any other conscious transitional device—simply by direct cutting from one story to the other, all four stories being now markedly parallel in action and essential content. The Judean story depicts the conflict of Jesus with the Pharisees, the Jewish rabbinate and with Rome. The organized opposition of the rabbinate against the “Man of Men” (subtitle) with his revolutionary “New Law”, is cited as an example of ecclesiastical intolerance, affecting the lives of future millions of people. The Medieval story dramatizes the strife in the sixteenth century between the Catholic hierarchy of France and the rising Protestant movement; it culminates in a bloody climax—the massacre of the Huguenots, on St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572 A.D. Religious intolerance. Babylon falls in Griffith’s history as the result of an act of treason by the established theological hierarchy under the dictatorship of the High Priest of Bel. The High Priest fears and fights the introduction into Babylon of new religions from without and of new, liberalizing political or social ideas from within. Accordingly, when the State-religion of Babylon is threatened with rivalry; when it no longer can dictate, unchallenged, the pattern of the national culture, then the High Priest and his cohorts among the hierarchy betray Belshazzar’s empire-city to Cyrus, emperor and war-lord of the Persians, world-conqueror. Imperialistic-political, religious, and racial (Cyrus, the Persian vs. Babylon) intolerance.

Intolerance The Dear One

Finally, the Modern Story (The Mother and the Law), the opening sequences of which are the first to appear in Intolerance, dramatizes the struggle between Capital and Labour (class hatred), in the early years of the twentieth century, in the United States. Economic and social intolerance. Throughout these panels run four separate personal stories. The Babylonian, Medieval and Judean stories, all end tragically: in the first, the Mountain Girl and her lover, the Poet-Rhapsode, agent of the High Priest of Bel, die in the fighting, when Babylon falls at last to the advancing Persian hordes; in the latter, the lovely Huguenot girl, Brown Eyes, is raped and killed by a mercenary, during St. Bartholomew’s massacre. Prosper, with her body in his arms, is shot; he dies by her side. Simultaneously, Christ is crucified on the cross, in the Judean story.

Intolerance - Modern Story Set
Intolerance – Modern Story Set

Of the four stories, only the Modern Story, laid in America, has a happy ending: the Boy, falsely convicted of a murder which he did not commit, is saved at the last minute from the hangman’s noose. He is reunited with his wife, the Dear One, amid scenes suggesting, that in the world oftwentieth-century America, there may be at least a possibility or chance that freedom and justice may prevail.

INTOLERANCE
INTOLERANCE MODERN STORY

“And so the four stories alternate with one another”, until, at the end, “they seem to flow together in one common flood of humanity”, which rises to a common, vast quadruple climax: the Boy is led to the hangman’s cell; Jesus is crucified; the Huguenots are massacred; Belshazzar is betrayed—Babylon falls; the peoples of the earth throughout the ages are stricken; the world is overrun with catastrophe and doom … In a word, Intolerance triumphs. “… the Inquisition is dead, but its soul goes marching on”. Upon the conclusion of the four stories, there follows an epilogue, in which Griffith prophesies in spectacular imagery a future Armaggedon or war for the world; the bombing of New York City in an unnamed conflict of the future; weird modern instruments of war; the ultimate downfall of all worldly tyrannies; the elimination of prisons and other places of incarceration; the ultimate liberation of all men and all nations from every form of bondage; the advent of universal peace through universal love: and, at the climax of climaxes, an apocalyptic vision. This final imagery follows the subtitle: “And perfect love shall bring peace forevermore”.

Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith - Intolerance
Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith – Intolerance

PRODUCTION

An Independent Film

Intolerance, like The Birth of a Nation, was produced and exhibited in entire independence of the Hollywood film industry. Although made in Hollywood, it was not of Hollywood. It bore no relation to the character, level, quality or purpose of the typical output of the American film industry of the period—or, for that matter, of any period. On the contrary; beyond the fact of geographic location, Hollywood had nothing whatever to do with its being made not its being shown. financing came from private sources, all of them unrelated to the American film industry, which had by this time fallen into the hands of commercially minded men of the lowest type. Griffith later poured his own huge profits from The Birth of a Nation into the filming of Babylon. Here again, as with the Civil War-Reconstruction film, so with Intolerance, Griffith formed an independent producing-company—the Wark Producing Corporation; later, he formed the Wark Distributing Corporation to release the film. H.E. Aitken at first was president of both corporations, but when Griffith later bought out his backers and became the sole owner of Intolerance, Aitken resigned. Griffith then became not merely the president of each company, but the company itself. The negative and prints of Intolerance have ever since belonged personally to Griffith.

The production of Intolerance really began in 1914, after The Birth of a Nation was made but before it was released, with the filming of The Mother and the Law. The Mother and the Law was originally made as a separate feature film to be released by Mutual (see Griffith Index: Part I), but for reasons which will be cited elsewhere in the Index, it was temporarily shelved. It was not until after the New York premiere of The Birth of a Nation was held, in March, 1915, that production was resumed on Intolerance. Then it was launched on a tremendous scale.

Freed from every possible control or restraining influence by the Hollywood overlords—cultural, economic, political, psychological or social, Griffith, in June, 191 5, two months after his triumphant return from the New York opening launched production simultaneously on each of the three historic stories — Babylon, Jerusalem and Paris.

wg bitzaer and dw griffith -intolerance

No Script

Although all Hollywood was astonished, and indeed the film colony for months remained agog with excitement and speculation over the unprecedented sets which began to tower in its midst, nevertheless, the nature of the film that Griffith was making, from the first day of “shooting” to the day the picture was first shown, was successfully kept a secret. As Terry Ramsaye later described it, “About it all was a hush of mystery. No one knew what Griffith was doing, but everyone learned that he was doing a lot of it”. The secret of the success of this secrecy consisted in the fact that there was never a written scenario or shooting script for Intolerance-, there was no “screen treatment”, no paperwork, no writing of any kind, such as might have furnished a clue to the contents or the continuity. When he had first conceived of the idea, Griffith made many notes, but as the time for actual production drew near, he had already mentally changed so much of the contents and treatment, that he began to find the volume of notes confusing, so much so that he destroyed all of them. As a result, Intolerance, the most massive and complex film ever made, was shot from beginning to end without recourse to one single written note. Needless to say, it was Griffith’s method of directing which made possible the perfection of such secrecy : the policy of no-script or of ” shooting off the cuff,” as popular studio vernacular has it, was extended to include the players, too. For although all the scenes were rehearsed, the players knew nothing either of the particular story in which they appeared or of the content and nature of the film as a whole. However, since the majority of screen actors and actresses, then as now, had not the slightest understanding of the film medium, this method offered many advantages, both to Griffith and to the film, and secrecy was merely one, and a typically practical, benefit in kind.

Intolerance Babylonian Set
Intolerance Babylonian Set

The Sets

The settings of Griffith’s Intolerance, especially the fabulous sets of the Babylonian story, are celebrated throughout film history. The sets for Babylon, ” Belshazzar’s empire-city,” were erected on a site of 254 acres, near the present junction of Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards, in Hollywood. The terrain consisted then of a combination of rolling fields and semi-desert or sand wash. Babylonia’s outlying walls were erected one mile distant, north of the main camera-station. The Babylonian sets of Intolerance are probably the greatest ever constructed for a motion picture—the highest, largest, most massive, the vastest in area. In 1916, the topmost towers at the corners of the ancient city formed the seventh tallest structure in the county of Los Angeles, and could be seen, with the great walls, for miles distant across town. Such, indeed, was the extent of Babylon, that Griffith, to film the Judean story, had the buildings, city-walls, and streets of ancient Jerusalem—themselves bigger than any previously known film-sets—built elsewhere, on a site three miles west of the Fine Arts Studios. The cobblestoned alleys and battle-turrets of Paris, 1572 a.d., being similarly crowded out by the Babylonic acreage, were built on the back lot at Inceville, some fifteen miles to the west. The set for Paris accommodated 2,000 “extras,” besides the assistants, camera crews, manual workers, etc. ; the set for Jerusalem accommodated 3,000. But the main Babylonian set—Belshazzar’s Feast—accommodated over 4,000 ” extras,” besides tie army of assistants and workers. ” The new Griffith picture beggars all description,” wrote Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, in the London Times,* upon his return from America. Yet for all its titanic dimensions, the really significant feature of Griffith’s Babylon was the fact that it was unplanned : none of the final architecture or lay-out was foreseen. Bitzer is enlightening on this point: ” Imagine,” he writes, ” laying out what were to be the mammoth, stupendous sets for ‘ Intolerance,’ without sketches, plans or blueprints at the beginning … we (Mr. Griffith, ‘ Huck ‘ Wortmann and myself) would have a pow-wow as to how low the sun might be, its approximate arc-position months hence, etc.—and that was the beginning of a set for ‘ Intolerance,’ to which, as it progressed and became a fifty-foot high structure, a hundred or more feet long, Mr. Griffith kept continually adding.

Intolerance
Intolerance

So that eventually these walls and towers soared to a height of well over a hundred and fifty feet, although at the beginning their foundations were intended only for a fifty-foot height. Huck had to continually reinforce their bases for the ever-increasing height, which perturbed Huck a whole lot, and also shot my light-direction plans all to pieces.” Week after week, long after the initial ” shooting ” had begun, annexes and wings to the rambling structures of metropolitan Babylon were added, until finally, from the desert and fields that lay between Los Angeles proper and its then rural suburb, Hollywood, a veritable and splendid city arose. Barracks and tents housed armies of workmen : these numbered seven hundred-odd carpenters, electricians, linemen, sculptors and skilled workers of various categories. Beyond the workers’ quarters, an encampment of bungalows was later added to house several thousand of ” extras,” who lived ” out of town ” or too far across the city to commute ; the players’ camera-call each day was for 7 a.m. The Pacific Electric Railway System of Southern California laid tracks to the main entrance of Babylon (the ” Great Gate of Imgur-Bel “). The tracks served both the Pacific Electric Railway and the Southern Pacific Railroad (one of the great transcontinental railroads of the United States), both of which lines transported food, materials and such livestock as was featured in the film — elephants and horses.

Intolerance - set
Intolerance – set

But the ” massive grandeur ” of Griffith’s Babylon reached its apogee in the ” Hall of Belshazzar’s Feast.” This fantastically enormous set, a masterpiece of filmic architecture, truly ” imaged after the splendour of an olden day,” as a subtide expressed it, consisted of an immense outdoor court or square in the heart of Babylon, centred in terraced steps and lion-headed balustrades, and colonnaded on opposite sides with overtowering, over-life-size sculptured elephants, which were poised, forelegs aloft, on columnar bases fifty feet above the set-floor. The hall was designed to accommodate, without crowding, five thousand persons at a time. The surrounding city-walls were jammed with hundreds of ” extras “—” Babylonian spectators,” who appear in the film, gazing down at the festivities and orgy, which occur more than a hundred feet below.

Intolerance - set
Intolerance – set

This is the most celebrated set of film-history, and derives its name from the action which unfolds upon it when first shown on the screen—Belshazzar’s Feast. ” His sets, particularly those for the Babylonian scenes, are breath-taking,” wrote Frank Nugent in the New York Times,™ during the March, 1936, revival of Intolerance, and added : ” . . . completely out-De Milling De Mille even in his most lavish mood.”

Intolerance
Intolerance

The longevity of the Babylonian sets of Intolerance, like their magnitude, is unequalled in the cinema. The principal buildings and walls were constructed of wood, “staff,” and adobe. Solidity was essential, for the walls encircling the city were made ” broad enough for chariots to pass three abreast.” Furthermore, the topmost towers at the city-corners rose to a height of more than 200 feet above the set-floor ; they were erected, ” massive as the pillars of Karnak,” on bases of stone. In consequence of the exceptional durability and quality of these building materials, the Babylonian sets remained standing long after Intolerance was released. The sets of Jerusalem were demolished ; so, too, was the city of Paris, two years later, including the magnificent and richly detailed reproduction of the court of Catherine de Medici ; but most of Babylon—specifically, the great Hall of Belshazzar’s Feast, the encircling city walls and the gigantic statue of Ishtar, ” goddess of Love sacred of the Babylonians ” (subtitle)—was left standing. Years afterwards, the Pacific Electric Railway and the Los Angeles City bus lines scheduled the Babylonian sets as a sightseeing spot for tourists. Then, in 1920, certain parts of Babylon were at last removed. However, the greater part still was left standing, and in 1923 Paramount leased the south and east walls and their adjacent sections for reconversion into Egyptian backgrounds for use in Biblical films. ” Fan ” magazines and trade journals referred in later years to the reconversion of Griffith’s Babylon into Biblical or Egyptian sets for the Biblical prologue to Cecil B. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments, and again for Raoul Walsh’s The Wanderer, a Biblical film (Paramount : 1925), but these passing assertions of reference or reminiscence have never been verified.

Intolerance abandoned set

Gigantic fragments of Griffith’s Babylon still were standing as late as 1930 or ’31. Today, although the last of the city-walls has been torn down to make way for apartment houses and a post-office, there may yet be found on the back lots of Monogram and the old Disney studios, which now occupy the site of Location No. 4—” Northeastern Babylon,” the surviving remnants of those elephantine and leonine backgrounds or ” props,” with which Griffith and his artisans of old re-created ” Babylon, that great and mighty city . . . (the) glittering jewel of antiquity”. (Subtitle).

Intolerance
Intolerance

Mobs

Architecture is not the only feature in which Intolerance is rated as the screen’s supreme spectacle. In regard to mass-scenes, this film, except for newsreels, stands unequalled in the cinema. Its nearest rivals are The Birth of a Nation, Ten Days that Shook the World, Potemkin, The Thief of Bagdad and Monna Vanna, but none of these really touches it. As has already been mentioned, the main Babylonian set—Belshazzar’s Hall of Feasting—embraced and featured 4,000 players at a time in one single shot. However, this was by no means the total number of ” extras ” that appeared in the Babylonian story, least of all in the film as a whole.

Intolerance
Intolerance

Eight thousand other ” extras ” were employed to represent Cyrus’s armies, while in the famous mass-shot of the Persians’ final and successful advance on Babylon (end of the Babylonian story : reel 12)—the climatic shot of a vast, undifferentiated mass, a horde solid and unbroken as far as the eye can see—16,000 ” extras ” appear at one time on the screen. This is commonly conceded to be the largest mob-scene and the greatest single mass-shot ever staged for any film. Uncounted thousands of ” extras ” were employed for the night battlescenes. The moving siege-towers of the Persians each held from fifty to one hundred combat-troops and sling-throwers ; and the attacking troops hurled against the Great Gate of Imgur-Bel and the adjacent walls numbered 5,000. On the walls themselves, thousands of others are shown, as they meet the oncoming human and mechanical tide of Persia’s might, and throw it back. Besides these, 3,500 ” extras ” appear in the Judean story ; 2,500 in the Medieval Story, and 1,000 ” extras ” in the combined courtroom and strike scenes of the Modern Story (The Mother and the Law). The total number of ” extra ” players that appeared in Intolerance at varying times in its almost two years of production has been set both by Griffith and Bitzer as about 60,000. Ofthese, the largest number to appear at one time in a single image on the screen is the 16,000 ” Persians ” in the mass-shot above described.

Intolerance
Intolerance

Cost

The total cost of the production of Intolerance, including that of the earlier production of The Mother and the Law, was $1,750,000. An additional $250,000 was spent on exploitation and publicity, making the total cost of the film $2,000,000.

Intolerance was not merely the most expensive film made up to 1916, but it remained for thirteen years (until HelVs Angels) the high watermark in production outlay for a motion picture. Ramsaye relates that ” Griffith’s payrolls for actors and extras ‘ in Intolerance for long periods ran as high as $12,000 a day.” But Griffith himself recounts that, in the Babylonian mass-scenes, the daily payroll often exceeded $20,000.

” Extras ” were paid $2 a day for eight hours, plus a 6c-cent free lunch. This remuneration was higher than that obtaining in the Hollywood film industry—indeed, it forced the regular film producing companies to raise the daily wage-rate for ” extras,” and it was regarded by the ” extras ” themselves in that vanished era of low living costs and non-union labour as fair compensation.

Some $550,000 were spent on Belshazzar’s Feast and on related scenes of the Babylonian story. Of this sum, $250,000 went into the set alone. The Princess Beloved’s feast costume cost $8,oco. The elegant reproduction of the court of Charles IX cost $100,000, while the rest of the Medieval Story cost an additional $150,000. The Judean story cost upwards of $300,000.

The rest of the costs of Intolerance went into The Mother and the Law (cost unknown, but probably about $12,000 or about the same as that of Judith of Bethulia) ; and into the architecture and mass-scenes of Babylon—the reproduction of the city, the Persian camp, the Persian attacks, the pagan festivals in the Temple of Love, the orgiastic celebration of the resurrection of Tammuz, and other material separate and apart from the battle-scenes proper Belshazzar’s Feast. It is hardly to be wondered that for almost two years the production of Griffith’s vast, mysterious film was referred to in the local papers as ” one of Los Angeles’ leading industries “! Griffith relates that in 1936, twenty years after its original release, Intolerance was budgeted by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in an effort to estimate its cost if made under current conditions. The estimate revealed that if the same film were made in that year by that studio, shot-by-shot as it had been made in 1915-1916, but with union labour, ” stars’ ” corresponding salaries, and with the sole addition of sound, the production cost would be either $10,000,000 or $12,000,000. On a relative scale, therefore, Intolerance remains the most expensive film produced in the history of the screen.

Lighting and Exteriors

One of the chief production features of Intolerance was the shooting of all exteriors out-of-doors by sunlight. There were no interior sets ” dressed-up ” as exteriors. The Babylonian exteriors, in particular, were taken without recourse to artificial lighting whatever ; and although there was little, if any, of the so-called ” Rembrandt fighting ” effect, certain scenes, especially those featuring vast crowds and mass-movement, were made without recourse even to sun reflectors. The sun itself was the principal lighting for Intolerance.

Intolerance
Intolerance – DW Griffith

Editing

Two months were required to edit 300,000 feet of film, which then were finally composed into a finished film of thirteen and three-quarter reels. In old-time, silent film running-time, this ran to three and a half hours. It was possible for Griffith to perform this editorial feat in only two months, because the production method which he used consisted more or less in editing the picture as he went along while shooting. This method has been known ever since to the film industry as ” cutting in the camera.”

Billy Bitzer and D.W. Griffith inspect the negative (Los Angeles Herald)
Billy Bitzer and D.W. Griffith inspect the negative (Los Angeles Herald)

CREATIVE INFLUENCE

On Film Technique

Production Methods

Not all of the directorial or production methods used by Griffith in making Intolerance were new; some few already had been tried quite successfully in filming The Birth of a Nation. But some were new, and those which were not were used far more extensively and more maturely than they had been in the previous film. The outstanding methods and policies of production and direction were as follows:

No script.—As has already been mentioned, the policy of filming the entire picture from beginning to end without a scenario, shooting script or paperwork of any kind, was the key to Griffith’s working method—indeed, more than this, it was basic and essential to his whole approach to the motion picture as a directorial rather than a literary medium: an art of, by and for directors, over and above, and separate and apart from, writers or playwrights. Griffith is in this vital respect far more closely related to the documentary picture makers of the present than he ever has been to stock-in-trade craftsmen or “professionals” who make “moving-pictures” (sic) in the major commercial film studios. Griffith never used a script on any of his films, and in the light of the overwhelming complexity and the dimensions of Intolerance, both as regards scenario and physical magnitude, his no-script policy here attains the zenith of perfection and realization.

Intolerance - shooting A Ride To The Rescue (Modern Story) D. W. Griffith, American film master
Intolerance – shooting A Ride To The Rescue (Modern Story)

Rehearsals.—In accord with the no-script policy, the method of rehearsing players before each scene was taken was used throughout. Usually, the scene was rehearsed as a whole before it was shot; then, the individual and separate scene-shots—medium shots, two-shots, close ups, etc., came to the players as repetitions, thus ensuring perfection of acting-detail or so-called finesse.

Organization and direction of crowds.—All persons from the days of The Birth of a Nation on who have ever witnessed Griffith direct crowds, have noted that Griffith organized and directed his mob-scenes like a veritable field-marshal. Griffith organized the mobs into sections or squads, to each of which he assigned an assistant director. To the latter, in turn, he assigned a corps of sub-assistants. All the assistants were in costume; they participated in the action as players, and simultaneously directed the surrounding groups of “extras”, to whom they had been assigned. At the beginning of each new major scene or bloc of “takes” Griffith conferred with the first-assistants, explained his directions and then despatched them into the field to relay the orders to the corps of sub-assistants. This method was augmented in the larger scenes by the use of improvised loud speakers or megaphones, which operated as sort of a primitive radio field-telephone or broadcasting system. Griffith’s method of the organization and distribution of mobs, with its distribution of assistant directors, field-telephones, loud speakers and auxiliary aids to mass-organisation, is the most efficient and extensive system of its kind used in any film production of which we have record. It served as a model to other directors in filming mass-scenes of magnitude in later films.

Intolerance
Intolerance

Sun-shooting.—As has already been mentioned, one of the chief creative policies in filming Intolerance was to shoot all exteriors outdoors by sunlight. There were no studio “fakes” or interior sets “dressed-up” as exteriors. In particular, the Babylonian exteriors were virtually all taken without recourse to any artificial lighting whatever; and in certain scenes, especially those featuring vast crowds and mass-movement, even the use of sun-reflectors was limited and, in a few instances, dispensed with. The sun was the principal source of lighting throughout the picture. Even the beam falling on the cradle, in the metaphorical transition-image of the Cradle, was the sun!—from a hole in the roof of a darkened set (Bitzer) ! It was this omnipresent and unrestricted use of the sun as the principal source of lighting for Intolerance that inspired Griffith to give the film its thematic sub-title, “A Sun Play of the Ages”.

Intolerance Original Program 1

Balloons.—To film the Feast of Belshazzar in its entirety from a central point directly above, Griffith took his camera and crew up in an observation balloon, which sky-moored over the vast set. Photoplay, October, 1916, reproduces a production-still of Griffith in the basket of the balloon, bawling orders through a great megaphone to the mobs in the court below. Balloons had no doubt been used previously in filming news-reels, but this is the first time of which we have record that a balloon was used as a camera-station in fiJming a regular (feature) film, or special production.

INTOLERANCE constructors and carpenters team
INTOLERANCE constructors and carpenters team

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