Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916)

  • Director: D.W. Griffith
  • Writers: D.W. Griffith (scenario) Anita Loos (titles)

Two years after the uproar over “The Birth”, when he agreed, at the behest of British and French officials, to make propaganda films, Griffith was obliged to portray all Germans as loathsome. This troubled him, for he never believed that there were marked differences among people. Regardless of background, he felt, they were all children of God.

In the midst of these battles, Mr.Griffith began work on an answer to his critics in the medium he had created. “The world is too full of ‘Think as I think or be damned.’”

“What the censors are doing has been done time and time again in the history of mankind.”

(The Movies, Mr.Griffith and Me)

During filming of the battle sequences, many of the extras got so into their characters that they caused real injury to each other. At the end of one shooting day, a total of 60 injuries were treated at the production’s hospital tent.

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It started as rather a small venture, with Mae Marsh and Bobby Harron in the leading parts. It was to be called “The Mother and the Law,” based upon a famous murder case, wherein an innocent man, through intolerance man’s inhumanity to man—was brought to the foot of the scaffold.

Mae Marsh Signed Photo
Mae Marsh Signed Photo
Robert Harron Signed Promotional
Robert Harron Signed Promotional
At the foot of the scaffold
At the foot of the scaffold …

Lillian was not to have a part in this new play. For one thing, she was working in another picture—as Annie, in “Enoch Arden”—one of the best of her early films—and in Richard Harding Davis’ story of “Captain Macklin.”

 

photo of Gish by Witzel of L. A., signed and inscribed in black ink 1914

And then, Griffith perhaps did not think it wise to push her forward too fast. But one night, after a day of hard rehearsal, he picked “Intolerance” 119 up a copy of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” and his eye caught:

 

. . . endlessly rocks the cradle,

Uniter of Here and Hereafter.

 

He saw a picture : a girl—Lillian—endlessly rocking the cradle of humanity, binding the ages together—ages of human intolerance.

intolerance-1916-lillian-gish-the-cradle-endlessly-rocking

Feverishly, he mapped out a new scenario, far-reaching, comprehensive, covering the great episodes of intolerance: back through the religious wars, with the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, through the Crucifixion, back to the days of Belshazzar, tyrant of Babylon. Beginning with the modern story, he would lead it through episodes of tyranny and bloodshed, down to the blind cruelty and intolerance of today. And always, between, that young mother, endlessly rocking the cradle of the child who, in every age, must pay the price.

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The preparations for “Intolerance,” as the new production was now called, were architecturally far more pretentious and costly than those for “The Birth of a Nation,” or for any spectacle play up to that time. Gigantic plaster elephants rose a hundred feet above the street level ; the towering buildings of Babylon stretched, a profile of ancient Asia, across the sky. Nubian lions roared; a motley assemblage of Persians, Egyptians, Babylonians, priests, dancing-girls, charioteers, and fifty-seven other varieties, gathered for rehearsal.

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The Babylonian orgy sequence alone cost $200,000 when it was shot. That’s nearly twice the overall budget of The Birth of a Nation (1915), another D.W. Griffith film and, at the time, the record holder for most expensive picture ever made. D.W. Griffith invested more than $2 million in this film, an unprecedented amount of money at the time.

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Unfortunately, it never even came close to earning back its budget–audiences in 1916 were completely unused to seeing films that ran in excess of three hours. Even when it was re-cut and released as two separate features, “The Fall of Babylon” and “The Mother and the Law”, it still failed to make money.

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Actors whose names were well known, or have since become so, first appeared on the screen in “Intolerance”: Count Erich von Stroheim, Frank Bennett, Tully Marshall, Constance Talmadge. Constance was an extra, used at first for rehearsal, but presently—in the “Mountain Girl who worshipped Belshazzar from afar”—Griffith could see only Constance, so gave her the part.

Constance Talmadge
Constance Talmadge
The Mountain Girl
The Mountain Girl

Griffith had money to work with, now, and spent it like Belshazzar himself. “Intolerance” required a year and a half to make, and an expenditure of nearly two million dollars.

The massive life – size set of the Great Wall of Babylon, seen in the fourth story, was placed at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Hollywood Boulevard (in Hollywood, California) when the movie was completed. It became a notable landmark for many years during Hollywood’s golden era. It actually stood on the lot of the studio on Prospect Avenue near the Sunset & Hollywood Boulevard junctions in the eastern end of the city. It was the first such exterior set ever built in Hollywood. Falling into disrepair, it was eventually torn down. Years later, this same Babylon set was replicated as the central courtyard design for the new Hollywood & Highland complex in Hollywood, which opened in 2001. Included among the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”, edited by Steven Schneider.

wg bitzaer and dw griffith -intolerance

The true power and magnificence of Intolerance came not from its size but from the cutting and editing of the negative. Mr. Griffith worked on every foot of film, slicing each scene to the core of its drama, joining the sequences in amazing harmony. The picture began with the modern story; then, after a transitional shot of me rocking the cradle, the camera moved back through centuries to focus on the massive gate of Babylon, then wandered through the gate into the crowded alleyways. Once the stories were all introduced, time spent on each segment was shorter. The scenes gained momentum, as the camera shifted freely from the modern factory to the wedding at Cana, from the parapets of Babylon to the Medici court. Each story was in itself a miracle of parallel action and cross-cutting. In the swift, overpowering climax, the four stories mingled in “one mighty river of emotion,” to use his own words, as short, staccato shots from each story exploded across the screen: the Mountain Girl racing to warn King Belshazzar; the first bloodletting in Paris; the Dear One hurrying to obtain a pardon for her innocent husband; Christ on the road to Calvary. At the breathless climax some of the shots were mere flashes, each hardly perceived, as the succession of pictures pelted the viewer: the fall of Babylon, the Crucifixion, the massacre, the Boy saved from the scaffold seconds before the trap was to be sprung.

At the foot of the scaffold
At the foot of the scaffold …

Like all Mr. Griffith’s films, Intolerance was rich in unforgettable moments: the closeup of Mae Marsh’s anguished hands as she hears her husband’s death sentence; the knives in the hands of the executioners, ready to cut the ropes that will plunge the young husband to his death; the death of the Mountain Girl; Cyrus’ warriors galloping toward Babylon; the tiny chariot with its white doves.

Intolerance
Intolerance

Never had Mr. Griffith’s technique been so fresh and resourceful. Again and again the film leaves the viewer with an after-image that does not fade but continues to intrigue the mind, keeping alive the emotions he experienced originally in seeing the film. Mr. Griffith could arouse a sense of horror in the viewer and then make him weep with tenderness. In Intolerance his genius reached its fullest expression. When Mr. Griffith finished editing Intolerance, it ran approximately eight hours. He planned to exhibit it in two parts, each a four-hour section, on two consecutive nights.

Intolerance
Intolerance

The dimensions of this film have never been equaled. When the exhibitors who were going to show Intolerance heard of its length they refused to handle it, and by that time they were in a position to dictate what they would or would not book. Although Mr. Griffith had ignored similar objections when he introduced the two-, four-, five-, and twelve-reel films, this time, unfortunately, he listened. He was advised to cut the film to one evening’s entertainment. He should have ignored the advice. His own instinct was right. Success or failure, Intolerance was his monument, the measure of the man himself. But the exhibitors won. The public was never shown Intolerance in its entirety.

Intolerance
Intolerance

“Intolerance must succeed!” he said to me one evening as he was cutting the film again in obedience to the exhibitors demands. The film was down to two and a half hours and much too tight. I had been so closely involved in the cutting and editing of the film that I was apprehensive over the result. How could he tell four stories of such magnitude in so brief a time?

Intolerance
Intolerance

Intolerance opened at the Liberty Theatre in New York on September 5, 1916. It was accompanied by an orchestra from the Metropolitan Opera. Nervously Mr. Griffith and all of us awaited the verdict of the public and critics. As with The Birth, the praise was overwhelming. First-night audiences stood up to applaud the master and his masterpiece. Film Daily said: “Stupendous, tremendous, revolutionary, intense, thrilling, and then you can throw away the old typewriter and give up with the dictionary because you can’t find adjectives enough. Mr. Griffith has put on the screen what is, without question, the most stirring human expression that has ever been presented to the world.” Everywhere respected critics and writers lauded the film. We were elated. Yet something went wrong. In the first four months at the Liberty,

Intolerance
Intolerance

Intolerance outdid the box-office record of The Birth. Then attendance began to fall off. It ran for five months in New York, but in the last weeks it was obvious to us all that the film was failing. In other cities it was the same story—a first surge of attendance, then a drop to almost nothing.

— Lillian Gish (The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me) —

Intolerance
Intolerance

Years are passing by …

Intolerance Studio Sets - Photoplay Magazine for November, 1929
Intolerance Studio Sets – Photoplay Magazine for November, 1929

Years are passing by …

Hollywood & Highland complex - Griffith's Babylon set replica
Hollywood & Highland complex – Griffith’s Babylon set replica

Years are passing by …

Intolerance - The End Scene
Intolerance – The End Scene

Intolerance original program

The abandoned set from “Intolerance”

rots away in Los Angeles …

The Intolerance set came to resemble an architectural model on a huge scale, albeit not a particularly accurate one. It’s sheer scale was overwhelming- massive, truly expansive, a monument in its own right, except it honored Griffith and the cinema instead of the Kings of Babylon- similar structures built more than a thousand years apart for entirely different purposes.

The set strove for a ‘heightened’ realism- it was aggressive in its authenticity, but was still altered and changed from the ‘true’, architectural building it aped to make it appear more realistic through the camera’s moderated eye. The set of Intolerance was an imperfect doppelganger, an artificial archeology that reflected the grand idea of Babylon more than its more practical reality.

 

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Despite the set of Intolerance being, by its very nature, fake, it actually became an actual archeological ruin of a certain nature, for at least a short while. The huge costs of the film made disassembling the set impossible, since labor costs had already been overrun so heavily and Hollywood studios are, if anything, hesitant to sink more money into a film that has already been released. The film’s box office was also somewhat less than expected, although the film eventually did turn a profit- audiences weren’t very taken with the complicated four-part plot, preferring to spend their money on tamer fare that was less preachy. As a result, the set lay abandoned since the producers refused to spend more money to destroy their fake city. Thus, for a time, Los Angeles had an abandoned Babylon within its borders, quickly deteriorating in the wind and weather as the cheap production processes set design use as their trademark slowly came undone. It soon became something of a tourist attraction, despite its worsening condition, and the city’s frequent fines.

Abandoned Babilonian set - 1917
Abandoned Babilonian set – 1917

An abstract question presents itself- had some disaster befallen the Earth in the winter of 1916, destroying our civilization in some sort of surreal, divine punishment for the forthcoming sins of flappers and Art Deco, would future archaeologists, coming across a ruined Babylon in sunny Los Angeles, have believed Hammurabi’s code had been proclaimed on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard instead from ancient Iran? Eventually, the set for Intolerance burned down in the 1920s, either as an accident or through the actions of producers still hesitant to spend money on removing the huge structure.

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Photograph:
(The abandoned set from Intolerance rots away in Los Angeles after the film has finished shooting, but before a fire destroyed the structure)
Hanson, Bernard. ‘D.W. Griffith: Some Sources.’ The Art Bulletin, Vol. 54, No. 4, 1972.

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

A golden thread binds the four stories, a fairly girl with sunlit hair – her hand on the cradle of humanity – eternally rocking …

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  • Intolerance – Photo Gallery

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Intolerance (Triangle, 1916). Fine. Program 1
Intolerance (Triangle, 1916). Fine. Program 1

“To me, Intolerance recalls Mr. Griffith’s words: “We have gone beyond Babel, beyond words. We have found a universal language, a power that can make men brothers and end war forever. Remember that! Remember that when you stand in front of a camera!”

— Lillian Gish (The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me) —

“When I left Griffith, I began making films for Lasky. I went back to pay a visit to Lillian and Dorothy Gish. I didn’t tell everybody that I was coming, maybe I told Lillian and Dorothy, or maybe I didn’t. Anyway, Griffith eventually arrived in their dressing room where I was, and he said to me, “Would you like to see what we’re doing for ‘Intolerance?'” Well, of course, the world could see what they were doing for “Intolerance” because there was about a ten-foot fence around the place. These buildings reared up in the background and anybody could see them. So he showed me the set of “Intolerance,” hoping that I was going to say, “Oh, I wish I was back here.” I knew what was going on by that time. “Intolerance” turned out to be a masterpiece. I think it’s Griffith’s greatest film.

D.W. used his own money for “The Birth” and “Intolerance” and the Aitkens helped him to finance his pictures. But they cost more than expected, and Griffith had to ask his actors and crew to take a cut in their salaries, and he would make it up to them after the films were completed. More than that, Mrs. Gish, Lillian, and Dorothy offered their money to help out, but D. W. thanked them and said no. That was a nice gesture from all concerned.”

  • From the interview with Blanche Sweet in “Speaking of Silents: First Ladies of the Screen” by William M. Drew, Vestal Press, 1989 (Page 225):

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