Intolerance (1916, D.W. Griffith)
D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance may have a claim to being the most influential motion picture ever made. Every idea the film has — and it’s overstuffed with them — has become cinematic grammar; careers, movements, and industries have grown out of its outsized ambition. So why isn’t it all that exciting to watch? I think it’s because Griffith’s achievements are matched by his regard for himself. He may have been the most important American filmmaker of the first twenty years of the century, but he was also one of the most pretentious directors ever to work in Hollywood. Like all of his work, Intolerance is quite blatantly in love with itself and its own outlandish accomplishments. Yes, he single-handedly changes the movie business here, perhaps even more so than he did with Birth of a Nation one year prior, but the film is so infatuated with its own extravagance that all you’re left wanting to do is to pop the balloon it’s flying around in.
Eight decades before smug critics accused Alanis Morrissette of redefining “ironic,” D.W. Griffith apparently came up with a new use for the word “intolerance.” The four stories he tells — in innovative non-linear, cross-cutting form — are mostly related to the actual concept of intolerance only peripherally. Basically, Griffith is whining about the “intolerant” reception to his intolerant, racist, blisteringly vibrant film Birth of a Nation, and three hours is more whining from a talented blowhard than I’m really keen on. It’s as if the classic radio talk show host — or worse, call-in guest — got a straw-man rant about their “free speech” being stomped on inexplicably filmed by some maverick genius. Griffith is all of the above: the quack, the sounding board, the trumped-up illustrator whose world lies independent of boundaries, which makes this enterprise liberating, challenging, and nearly interminable.
It isn’t that I don’t think Griffith deserves his reputation or that Intolerance wasn’t a world-changing film, even though it was considered a financial disappointment at the time. I just don’t think it matters in watching the movie today. Its sense of drama comes out of Griffith’s usual bleary-eyed greeting-card sentimentality when it isn’t simply over-the-top melodrama. There are a host of silent films that play today as if they were made a week ago; most of Griffith’s are antiques. Of his four stories — Babylon, Judea, French Revolution, and modern America — only the last deeply connects on a human level, thanks to clearheaded if rote characterization, though its relatability is constrained by both its broad interest in freeing itself of all distinction to remain universal (the characters are referred to as “the Boy” and “the Dear One”) and by the patness of its ridiculous finale, which involves a classic Griffith chase to get the governor to stop an execution. The modern tale lacks the bravura sets and extremities of the rest of the film, but it succeeds on a more basic level because it doesn’t get caught up in Griffith’s title-heavy, footnote-filled, woefully overcomplicated excuse for storytelling, which probably comes off poorly for me due to its mythological fixations and arcane overexplanations that make me feel as if I’m watching a dumb fantasy film.
Griffith was, I hasten to add, a fine director. Some of his short films made prior to Birth are extremely exciting, and his distinctive editing style (which everyone adopted as their own within ten years) was in place far earlier than you think. And Orphans of the Storm is still a perfect storm of suspense, romance, satire, and historical drama, everything Birth of a Nation and Intolerance are reputed to be and aren’t… precisely because Orphans is a movie about people, not grandiose objects and events and spectacle. Spectacle is all Intolerance really has going for it, and the building of Griffith’s Great Wall of Babylon is not a particularly cinematic achievement in and of itself, nor is photography of it the same. Beyond that, all the movie has is a remarkably advanced style of cutting, titling, staging, and setting of time and place. Its triumphs are all technical; there is nothing in the picture that comes off today as particularly personal.
But Griffith does go off on a limb enough that the whole thing seems a bit nutty, and this is what redeems the movie now, that and the haunting eyes of Mae Marsh, the gently striking performance of Margery Wilson, and the stoic presence of Lillian Gish, who lends legitimacy to Griffith’s nonsensical, irritatingly literal notion about Eternal Motherhood driving our narratives as the rocking of a cradle. It’s a must-see for anyone who cares about how the groundwork was laid for great feature films in the twelve years that followed it and is far more valid as entertainment today than the humiliating Birth of a Nation. In the end, though, unless you’re a film student or extremely curious about the history of the medium, who cares? If you tried to play this to most audiences today they’d walk out, and I can’t say that I’d blame them.
[Minor expansion of a review first posted in 2007.]