MASTERS OF THE AMERICAN CINEMA
- Louis Giannetti
- 1981 by Prentice-Hall, Inc. A Division of Simon & Schuster Englewood Cliffs, NJ 07632
The Cinema of D.W. Griffith
The motion picture, although a growth of only a few years, is boundless in its scope and endless in its possibilities. The whole world is its stage, and time without end its limitations. — D. W. Griffith
Publicity photo of Griffith and G. W. “Billy” Bitzer (behind camera), during the production of Way Down East (1920). Bitzer, who photographed virtually all of Griffith’s movies, is the first great cinematographer of the American cinema. Together they popularized many of the standard optical techniques of their medium, including the fade-out, iris-in and iris-out, double and multiple exposures, and all kinds of masking devices to alter the shape of the screen. He and Bitzer developed soft focus and “mist” (filtered) photography, back lighting, side lighting, and tinting. They introduced the point-of-view shot (photographing events as though through a character’s eyes) and many types of moving camera shots. See G. W. Bitzer, Billy Bitzer: His Story (New York: Farrar, Straus 8c Giroux, 1973).
His next movie was based on a concept he believed would make even Birth seem modest in comparison. By using the principle of the association of ideas implicit in the art of editing, he wanted to explore a single theme within a variety of different settings. The result was Intolerance (1916), still one of the most awesome spectacles in the history of the cinema. Griffith intercut four separate stories, all of them unified—more or less—by the theme of intolerance. A contemporary story of social injustice was crosscut with an epic tale set in ancient BabyIon, with the story of Jesus, and with a love tragedy which is culminated by the massacre of the Huguenots in sixteenth-century Paris. The movie leaps over thousands of years and over as many miles. The “connections” between the four stories are entirely mental and emotional and have nothing to do with literal continuity. Griffith tied them together with a recurrent image of The Eternal Mother rocking a cradle, accompanied by Walt Whitman’s famous line, “Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking….”
At the beginning of the movie, Griffith announces his theme: “Each story shows how hatred and intolerance, through the ages, have battled against love and charity.” Each of the four stories is introduced and developed briefly. As the audience becomes more familiar with each set of characters, Griffith dispenses with title transitions and cuts directly from story to story, accelerating the pace of the editing radically as the movie builds to its multiple climaxes. As Alan Casty has pointed out, Griffith often favored a triadic pattern of cutting, and in Intolerance he magnified this technique to produce a veritable torrent of images. Three of the four stories are cut to this pattern, each involving a last-minute rescue attempt. In the contemporary story the Boy (Robert Harron) is being prepared for execution by the state, while his wife, the Dear Little One (Mae Marsh), races in a car to obtain a last-minute pardon from the governor, who is speeding away in a train. The French plot is also characterized by three-way cutting: The Catholic hero races to the rescue of his Protestant fiancee, who along with her family is slated to be murdered by the king’s troups, who are maurauding in the streets. These shots are intercut with a three-way sequence in the Babylonian story, in which the loyal Mountain Girl (Constance Talmadge) races in a chariot to warn her Prince and his revelling subjects of an impending attack by the Persian army. These three hair-breadth sequences are intercut in turn with shots of the crucifixion of Jesus. Only in the contemporary story does justice prevail. In the others, the forces of “love and charity” are tragically defeated.
From the point of view of technique, Intolerance is a veritable feast. The original print was tinted: blue for the Judean scenes, sepia for the French plot, grayish-green for the Babylonian story, and amber for the contemporary sequences. Griffith altered his tinting internally as well: Many of the evening scenes were blue, the daytime exteriors yellow, and the night battle scenes red. The director designed many of the opulent sets and costumes of the Babylonian sequences. He also used a wide variety of masking devices to alter the screen’s size: irises to pinpoint details, vertical masks to emphasize steepness, and horizontal masks to create thrilling widescreen panoramas. The battle scenes are even more monumental than those oi Birth. Thousands of extras were employed to represent the clashing armies of Cyrus and Belshazzar. The weapons and strategies of war are fascinating. Enormous ladderlike towers are used by the Persians to scale Belshazzar’s mountainous walls. Boiling oil is poured over the invading Persian hoards. Primitive flame throwing tanks repeatedly batter the Babylonian fortifications, while catapults hurl enormous rocks over the walls of the city. It was many years before the American cinema produced a spectacle of comparable dimensions.
Some critics complained that Griffith’s elephantine scale reduced the human dimension to virtual insignificance. Unlike Birth, in which the viewer is encouraged to identify emotionally with individual problems as well as larger political issues, in Intolerance the sheer awesomeness of the production values tends to sweep everything else away. Many spectators found it difficult to care about the characters, who on the whole are less compelling and individualized than those in Birth. In part this inadequacy was caused by Griffith’s decision to cut the movie to thirteen reels, about three hours. Originally he planned to release the film in two four-hour sections, to be shown on two consecutive evenings. In effect, five-eighths of the picture is missing. Miss Gish, who was intimately connected with the movie on the production level, believes that the original version would have been an enormous success.
There are other flaws in the film that contributed to its box office failure. Griffith sometimes informs us how to respond to the characters instead of dramatizing them effectively. Most of the villains—always a weakness in his works—are unconvincingly motivated and crudely acted. The lovers in the French story don’t do much of anything except smile goonily at one another, and Belshazzar and his Princess Beloved merely drape the furniture, declaring their undying love. Similarly, Jesus is only a “presence,” gliding mysteriously over the landscape. The characters in the modern story are developed in greater detail, but even here we’re given labels rather than rounded characters: The Friendless One, The Musketeer of the Slums, and so on. Even some of the movie’s enthusiasts have admitted that its four stories aren’t very organically related to the ostensible theme of intolerance. Edward Wagenknect, who regarded the film as “incontestably the greatest motion picture ever made,” nonetheless lamented Griffith’s clumsy titles, which keep harping on intolerance as if he knew his theme was not sufficiently dramatized to stand on its own. Despite all these flaws, however, the film remains a towering achievement, if for nothing else because of its undeniable grandeur. Though Griffith continued to make films of high artistic merit, none of them could equal the sheer majesty of Intolerance.