INTOLERANCE (Griffith Wark, 1916) Selected Film Criticism

Selected Film Criticism

INTOLERANCE (Griffith Wark, 1916)

  • Julian Johnson in Photoplay, Vol. 11, No. 1 (December 1916), pages 77-81.
  • Frederick James Smith in The New York Dramatic Mirror, Vol. 76, No. 1969 (September 16,1916), page 22.

The metropolitan critics who preceded me in learned discourse upon Mr. Griffith’s sun-play, Intolerance, shot away all the superlatives which were our common property. Thus deprived of the communal ammunition I must lay about me with a week-day set of words and present facts garnished neither with rhapsody nor raillery.

Intolerance is a collective story of the penalties paid through the centuries to those who do not believe as we believe.” It occupied its maker’s entire attention for at least a year and a half.

Intolerance (Triangle, 1916). Fine. Program 2

Both the notion and the generalship are his. Intolerance is more than the world’s biggest photoplay. In size and scope it is the biggest art-work of any description in a decade.

Here is a joy-ride through history; a Cook’s tour of the ages; a college education crammed into a night. It is the most incredible experiment in story-telling that has ever been tried. Its uniqueness lies not in a single yarn, but in the way its whole skein of yarns is plaited.

Its distinct periods are four: Babylon, at the end of the regency of Prince Belshazzar; Judea, in the time of Christ; France under the inquisitorial high tide of St. Bartholomew’s; and the American Now, with the intolerances of capital, labor, and the courts.

None of these tales runs straightaway. You stand in medieval France and slip on the banana-peel of retrogression to Chaldea. You are sure America has you — a wink has aviated you back to Palestine. It is much like listening to a quartette of excellent elocutionists simultaneously reading novels by Arnold Bennett, Victor Hugo, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Elinor Glyn.

Any of these carnivorous legends would fang you emotionally if you were left long enough in its cage. But just as it is about to bite, out you come, slam goes the door, and you are thrust among the raveners of another century.

There has never been such scenery, anywhere, as the edifices reared for the Babylonian episode.

Pictorially, the greatest filmings are the Judean scenes, perfect in composition, ideal in lighting, every one in effect a Tissot painting of the time of Christ.

The Chaldean visions will teach history to college professors.

Altogether, the accuracy and authority of Intolerance’s historic information is stupendous.

Constance Talmadge Publicity (Mountain Girl - Intolerance)
Constance Talmadge Publicity (Mountain Girl – Intolerance)

The finest individual acting accomplishments are Mae Marsh’s. The unique figure is Constance Talmadge, as The Mountain Girl; the most poignantly beautiful, Seena Owen, as Altarea, favorite of Belshazzar. But there are no male assumptions even approaching the chief portrayals in The Birth of a Nation.

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

Mr. Bitzer’s photography, devoid of anything sensational, flows like the transparent, limpid style of a finished writer. It is without tricks, and without imperfections.

An attempt to assimilate the mountainous lore of this sun-play at a sitting results in positive mental exhaustion. The universally- heard comment from the highbrow or no-brow who has tried to get it all in an evening: “I am so tired!”


Profoundest of symbols is the Rocking Cradle — “uniter of here and hereafter” — which joins the episodes. This mysterious ark of life, the stuff of a dream in the dimness of its great shadowed room, almost belongs to infinity. Lillian Gish is the brooding mother.

The music is sadly inefficient–the most inefficient music a big picture ever had.

Thousands upon thousands of feet of this photoplay never will be seen by the public. In the taking, this story rambled in every direction, and D. W. G. relentlessly and recklessly pursued each ramble to its end. At least half a dozen complete minor stories were cut off before the picture was shown at all.


In all probability, Intolerance will never attain the popularity of The Birth of a Nation. It has not that drama’s single, sweeping story. It appeals more to the head, less to the heart.

Intolerance - set
Intolerance – set

Babylon is the foundation-stone, and seems to have been the original inspiration, of this visual Babel. Its mighty walls, its crowds, its army, have won many long-drawn “Ahs!” of sky-rocket admiration. But these were not essentially Griffith–anyone with money can pile up mobs and scenery. Mr. Griffith’s original talent appears in recreating the passions, the ambitions, the veritable daily life of a great people so remote that their every monument is dust, their every artwork lost, their very language forgotten. This is more than talent; it is genius.


You were taught that the Jewish Jehovah traced destruction’s warning in letters of fire on the wall of Belshazzar’s palace; and that Cyrus, to get in, drained the Euphrates river and walked on its bed under Babylon’s gates. See this picture and get the facts. Babylon was peacefully betrayed by the priests of Marduk long after it had successfully withstood as frenzied a siege as the Persian conqueror could bring.

Not content with rearing the vast barriers and marvelous gates you have seen illustratively reproduced in these pages, the California necromancer showed life as it ran its slender course among the poor more than twenty-five centuries ago. Always of this undercurrent is The Mountain Girl, a wild, wonderful little creature, to be followed from semi-slavery through the civic courts to the marriage market, where she is released by an impress from the roll-seal Belshazzar has strapped upon his wrist. Thereafter she is, to the death, a sweet Amazon in the service of her great Sar. The camp of Cyrus, with the “Institution” of the Medes and Persians, is as instructive as a West-Asiatic history. The attack upon Babylon, with its terrible towers, its demoniac “tank” of Greek fire– flaming prophecy of the Somme juggernauts!–its ferocious personal encounters, is unparalleled in battle spectacles. Behold the vivid though perhaps dubious realism of gushy close-ups on sword-thrusts. Heads literally fly off above shearing swords, hot lead sears, rocks crush, arrows pierce horridly–and withal there is the unconquerable animation and fury of ultimate conflict.

Otherwheres, the sensuous glory of the Chaldean court. No brush-master has painted more Oriental splendors than those boasted by the golden bungalow of Nabonidus, quaint father of the virile voluptuary, Belshazzar. Beauty blooms in wildest luxuriance in this New York of the Euphrates. The dances of Tammuz, god of springtime, flash forth in breath-taking nudity and rhythm as frank as meaningful. They are flashes, only; that is why they remain in the picture. One cannot imagine a more beautiful thing than Seena Owen as Attarea–veritable star of the East. The tiny battle-chariot with its cargo of a great white rose, drawn down the table to Altarea’s Belshazzar by two white doves, chances to remain the only untouched thing in the palace of death which Cyrus enters. There is pathos! Tully Marshall as the High Priest of Bel, Elmer Clifton as the Rhapsode, George Siegmann as Cyrus–three players who are especially redoubtable.


The magical David pounds his points home by contrast. From the solemn grandeur of Ishtar’s high altar, with its costly burnt offering of propitiation, he flashes to an aged widow offering her all to the same deity–three turnips and a carrot, covered with a little oil.

Intolerance the french story

The France which our film – etcher rears for the massacre of St. Bartholomew is as fine a France as Stanley Weyman pictured in words. Griffith spares neither exactness nor feeling. With delicate touches he builds up keen interest in the home of Brown Eyes — then slaughters the whole family. Wonderful characters here are Josephine Crowell’s Catherine de Medici; and Charles IX, as played by Frank Bennett.

Intolerance Massacre Medici

Much has been taken from the Judean scenes, but so much remains to hail as optic poetry that the loss is negligible. I can think of nothing finer in the handling of light, nor in the massing and moving of figures, than the “marriage in Cana.” More education! The complete wedding rite, with its odd observances according to Hebrew tradition, is a transcription from Minor Asia such as one cannot find outside the pages of Josephus. Stirringly dramatic, yet faithful to the letter of the gospels, is the scene in which Jesus faces those who would stone the woman taken in adultery. There is a scene of The Christ laughing, conversing, supping, interchanging views–a man among men. And there is the Via Dolorosa.

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

The modern story is, among other things and preachments, an attack upon the arrogance of “Foundations, ” and that tyranny of some organized charities which makes their favored more victims than beneficiaries. In its essence, the modern tale seems to me a dull, commonplace movie melodrama. In it Mr. Griffith seems to lose his perspective of character. He makes commonplace types and personifications, not his usual creatures: thinking, feeling men and women.

Intolerance The Dear One

Mae Marsh and Robert Harron portray victims of poverty, lack of education and evil surrounding. Both are driven from the home town by strike participation. The boy turns cadet–eventually reforms to marry Mae. His underworld master, “The Musketeer of the Slums, ” frames him criminally for this desertion, and, in the language of the caption, he is “intolerated away for awhile.” In the interim, the Musketeer endeavors to “make” the boy’s wife, who has lost her baby to intolerant uplifters. In the grand encounter of Musketeer, Musketeer’s girl, boy and wife, the monster is shot, the boy is blamed though the mistress did it, and the capital sentence is carried out–nearly, but not quite–in the perfect gallows- technique of San Quentin penitentiary.

Mae Marsh Portrait

Best in the modern spectacle are not the dull details of thing that happen, but the lifelike performances of those to whom they happen. Mae Marsh’s flirtation in court with her husband as the jury deliberates his life away–she a scared, drab little figure of piteous noncomprehension–here is a twittering smile more tragic than the orotund despairs of Bernhardt. Miriam Cooper, as the Musketeer’s mistress, gives an overwhelming pastel of jealousy and remorse. All actresses who honestly provide for home and baby by the business of vamping and gunning, would do well to observe Miss Cooper’s expressions and gestures. Miss Cooper is police dock– she is blotter transcript. Her face is what you really see some nights under the green lamps. Harron is ideal as the boy, and Walter Long, as the Musketeer, approaches but does not equal his performance of Gus, in The Birth of a Nation.

Intolerance - Modern Story Set
Intolerance – Modern Story Set

Spades are not once termed garden implements in this sector nor are the kisses paternal or platonic.

In this stupendous chaos of history and romance the lack of a virile musical score is the chief tragedy. Proper melody would have bound the far provinces of this loose empire of mighty imagina tion into a strong, central kingdom.

I wish Mr. Griffith had worked out a whole evening of his great Babylonian story. Sticking to this alone, he would have added an art-product to literature as enduring as Flaubert’s Salammbo.

Intolerance - The End Scene
Intolerance – The End Scene

If I may predict: he will never again tell a story in this manner. Nor will anyone else. The blue sea is pretty much where it was when the sails of the Argonauts bellied tight in the winds of a morning world, and so are the people who live in the world. Still we wish to follow, undisturbed, the adventures of a single set of characters, or to thrill with a single pair of lovers. Verily, when the game is hearts two’s company, and the lovers of four ages an awful crowd.

–Julian Johnson in Photoplay, Vol. 11, No. 1 (December 1916), pages 77-81.

* * *

It is easy enough, as you catch your breath at the conclusion of Intolerance, to indulge in trite superlatives. Film reviewing has been over superlatived. But this new Griffith spectacle marks a milepost in the progress of the film. It reveals something of the future of the spectacle, something of its power to create pictures of tremendous and sweeping beauty, drama, and imagination. The future will come when the great writer unites with the great producer.

Intolerance Babylonian Set
Intolerance Babylonian Set

Intolerance, of course, instantly challenges comparison, by reason of its creator, with The Birth of a Nation. One is the dramatization of a novel, a gripping, even thrilling visualization of a story dealing with a theme of national interest–our own Civil War. On the other hand, Intolerance is the screening of an idea. That alone places it as an advance.

Intolerance – DW Griffith

The Screening of an Idea

Mr. Griffith sought a theme which has traced itself through history. He advances the proposition that humanity’s lack of tolerance of opinion and speech has brought about the world’s woes.

Taking four periods of history, he traces the working out of this idea. We have, perhaps, come to assume that our own age is one of singular meddling and busy-bodyism. But Mr. Griffith points out that the thing has been the same through the ages.

Intolerance - GOLGOTA
Intolerance – GOLGOTA

Briefly, the periods depicted revolve around the fall of Babylon in 538 B. C., the coming of the Nazarene and the birth of the Christian era, the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s day in France during the reign of Charles IX, and the present day. Mr. Griffith, of course, handles his four plots at one time. The threads are interwoven. The moments dealing with the life of Christ, it may be noted here, are brief, being in reality rich tableaux of the persecution of the Saviour. Griffith has endeavored to humanize Christ. These moments are handled with reverence, dignity, and beauty of picture. Indeed, there are moments worthy of Tissot. Once, oddly, the director attains a singular effect of a shadow cross upon the figure of Christ.

wg bitzaer and dw griffith -intolerance

DW Griffith, Billy Bitzer and Dorothy Gish (background left)
DW Griffith, Billy Bitzer and Dorothy Gish (background left)

The modern theme of Intolerance has a Western town as its locale. The owner of a factory reduces wages that he may make extended–and widely heralded–contributions to charity. A strike devastates the town and the workers are forced to move away. The boy and the girl of the story, now married in the city, still remain the playthings of intolerance. The boy is sent to prison for a crime he never committed. In his absence the baby is taken away from the mother by a charitable society. The boy, on returning, becomes innocently involved in a murder and, through his criminal record, is convicted. The story finally races to a climax when, as the execution is about to take place, the wife, aided by a kindly policeman, hurries to the governor with the confession of the real murderer. They miss the executive, who has taken a train. The policeman commandeers a racing car and they speed after the express. The execution is stopped just as the death trap is to be sprung.

Spectacle’s Appeal Lies in Babylonian Story

The principal appeal of Intolerance, however, lies in the Babylonian story. Here we see Belshazzar ruling Babylon with his father, Nabonidus. He is a kindly, generous monarch–as kings in those days went–but the high priest of Bel resents his religious tolerance. So, when Cyrus, king of the Medes and Persians, attacks the walled city, the priest betrays Babylon. So the city falls, after a mighty battle such as never before had been conceived in mimicry.

Mr. Griffith has reconstructed the city of Babylon–according to authentic records and researches, we are told by the programme and we may well believe. The city, with its great walls, three hundred feet high and big enough on top for two war chariots to pass, its temples, its lofty halls, its slave marts, and its streets, lives again, seething with life. The attack upon Babylon is handled on a tremendous scale. We are shown Cyrus’s camp in the desert sands. Then we see his cohorts, his barbarians from distant lands, his war chariots, his elephants, his great moving towers, advance upon Babylon. Great catapults hurl rocks upon the defenders. Moulten lead is thrown from the walls. Showers of arrows fall.


One great siege tower, black with fighting men, is toppled over and goes crashing to the ground. Ladders, manned by warriors, are flung down. So the battle goes a day and a night. Treason finally gives over Babylon, in the midst of a great bacchanial feast of victory.

This theme is unfolded with Mr. Griffith’s fine skill in handling hundreds and thousands of men. There is a certain personal note in the spectacle. Belshazzar, his favorite, Attarea, the boisterous little mountain girl who loves the king from afar, and the crafty priest of Bel are finely humanized. The tremendous applause at Intolerance’s premiere, occasioned when Babylon first fought off the invaders, was a vital compliment to the skill of the producer.


One forgot that, with the fall of the city, fell the Semitic race, and that ever afterwards the Aryan people controlled the affairs of civilization.


Huguenot Theme Least Compelling

The final, and least compelling, theme deals with Catherine de Medici and her instigation of the massacre of the Huguenots in Paris in 1572 under the cloak of religion. The personal side of the story deals with two Huguenot lovers, victims of the cruel religious persecution. This theme has been carefully staged, in the bigness of its court interiors, the depth of its street scenes, and its handling of the ruthless massacre.

The defense of Babylon brings the first half of Intolerance to a big climax, while the last portion is largely given over to the climax of the modern plot thread. Finally, we are shown the idealistic future, with two armies racing to meet each other, only to throw down their arms and clasp hands. This is banal, of course, but Mr. Griffith intends it to weave the themes together and point to the future, when tolerance will make war and all evils impossible.

A certain symbolical note is touched by frequent, half shadowy, glimpses of a woman rocking a cradle. Mr. Griffith gives programme explanation of the symbolism: “Through all these ages Time brings forth the same passions, the same joys and sorrows, the same hopes and anxieties–symbolized by the cradle ‘endlessly rocking.’ “

Intolerance - The End Scene
Intolerance – The End Scene

The Construction of the Four Plot Threads

Intolerance, let us sum up once more, stands at the outpost of the cinema’s advance. It has an idea. It has a purpose. From a structural standpoint, the handling and weaving of four plots are revolutionary. There is never a moment’s lack of clarity. Each story sweeps to its climax. Since the interest is divided, it would be reasonable to assume that the dramatic interest might, too, be divided. But the grip of Intolerance, to our way of thinking, surpasses The Birth of a Nation. Power, punch, and real thrills are there–thrills to equal the preceding Griffith spectacle. Its themes are overtopped by spectacular trappings, dwarfing them in a meas¬ ure. The modern story, in its melodramatic present dayedness, seems a bit below the key of the historical divisions. It is lurid, even conventional, in its final working out. But, in its early moments, it points a caustic finger upon certain phases of modern charity, particularly upon the salaried uplifter. And it is the one vigorous story of the spectacle.

Griffith makes his point in Intolerance. There are obvious moments, moments a bit overdone, lapses to banality, but, on the whole, Intolerance is a mighty thing. Its spectacular appeal is certain.

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

The musical arrangement of Joseph Carl Breil has impressive moments. There is no strain, however, to equal the barbaric African theme, which ran through The Birth of a Nation.

The production has been awaited for new methods of plot handling and production. The mingling of four themes of different periods, told in parallel form, has not been tried before. It was a daring experiment. The method of blending the plots, switching from one to the other, is adroitly done. It will have its effect upon coming productions.

The Production

The spectacle, a number of times reveals close-ups of characters’ faces which occupy the whole screen. Sometimes these advance in the camera eye to full screen size. It is an effective way of driving home the dramatic mood of the scene.

We find Griffith making his usual frequent and effective use of detail, as in the flashes of the doves in the shadows of the house as Christ passes, the close-ups of the Hebrews in the Judean streets, the page boy half asleep in French court, and the modern girl tending her pitiful little geranium in her tenement room.

Skillful use is made of camera tricks in handling the seeming hurling of soldiers from the Babylonian walls. We apparently see them strike the ground in front of the camera.

Care has been taken with the sub-titles. The bombastic captions of The Birth of a Nation are absent. Some humor and much historical information are to be found in the sub-captions of Intolerance.

The camera work everywhere is beautifully artistic. We recall, for instance, nothing in screen production more striking than the episode of Christ and the woman taken in adultery.

Cast of Intolerance Long and Able

The cast of principals is long and able. Mae Marsh stands pre-eminent for her touching playing of the girl of the modern story. Seena Owen makes a striking and unforgettable figure as Attarea, the favorite of Belshazzar. She lends genuine appeal to the picturesque role. Constance Talmadge gives buoyancy and spirit to the mountain girl. Miriam Cooper sounds a certain poignant note as a modern girl wrecked on the wheel of sordid city life. Margery Wilson has opportunity to reveal little more than prettiness as the Huguenot heroine.

Robert Harron makes the most of his role of the boy of the modern story, almost a victim on the altar of modern intolerance.


Alfred Paget’s playing of Belshazzar has nobility and humanness. Tully Marshall makes the High Priest of Bel sinister and clean cut.

INTOLERANCE Alfred Paget - Belshazzar
INTOLERANCE Alfred Paget – Belshazzar

There are scores of slender roles well done. Prominent among these is the huge faithful warrior of Elmo Lincoln, who dies fighting for his king against hopeless odds. The kindly policeman of the modern story, done by Tom Wilson, stands out. Louis Romaine gives realism to the prison chaplain.

INTOLERANCE constructors and carpenters team
INTOLERANCE constructors and carpenters team

All in all, Intolerance is a stupendous production. It has the romance of four civilizations.

–Frederick James Smith in The New York Dramatic Mirror, Vol. 76, No. 1969 (September 16, 1916), page 22.

Intolerance advert2

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