Film Chronology – Intolerance (1916)

by RISHI AGRAWAL

Intolerance 041107

Intolerance was a film that was revolutionary in a lot of ways. The film, which wove stories from four different time periods together, paved the way for the historical epic. I can’t find any evidence that the film also influenced the ensemble drama, but it certainly was an early attempt at that genre as well. It may not have been the first historical epic, but with its lavish sets and cast of thousands, it was one of the most ambitious. One of the most interesting things to note about this film is that it was the first spectacular failure in the history of movies.

D.W. Griffith, fueled by the commercial success of The Birth of a Nation, spent a bundle on Intolerance. Reports vary, but Griffith spent at least half a million dollars on the film and perhaps up to two million dollars (between $10 million and $40 million in current dollars). That may not sound like much compared to today’s film budgets, but remember that the film industry was still in its early stages. The film did not resonate with contemporary audiences and was a box office failure.

The film takes place in four different time periods, cutting between the different stories rather than showing them consecutively. The two main stories are a modern story, which takes place in a “western city” in the United States and a story set in ancient Babylon in 539 B.C., chronicling the fall of the empire. Two other stories are featured: taking place in Paris in 1572, during the reign of Charles IX, concerning the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and a story in ancient Jerusalem, which depicts a few incidents from the life of Jesus. According to the title cards, the film is about intolerance and the folly of a group of people discriminating against another group. The subtitle for the film, Love’s Struggle Through the Ages, might offer some clues, but in truth, the themes are somewhat forced and the stories have little connection.

I should probably note that there are several versions of this film. Griffith was constantly editing the picture and even changed some key plot points. Some versions of the film were extremely dark, with dismal endings to all four stories. The film was later split into smaller films, with the modern story becoming The Mother and the Law and the Babylonian story becoming The Fall of Babylon, both released in 1919. The version that I watched was the full version, released by Image Entertainment on DVD in 1999.

One of the major hurdles in watching this film is the convoluted plot. Within each of the stories are many plots and subplots and the film, as a whole, contains dozens of characters. I will attempt to distill the plot into its essential elements to facilitate those of you who want to see this film. And believe it or not, this is the short version of the plot. Griffith’s movies tend to have an abundance of plot with little chaff.

The modern story revolves around two characters: The Boy (Robert Harron) and the Dear One (Mae Marsh). By the way, Griffith came up with the names of these characters – I am not trying to be cute. The Boy and the Dear One are working at a mill owned by Arthur Jenkins (Sam De Grasse), who is modeled after Rockefeller. Jenkins’ sister Mary (Vera Lewis) gets involved with a reform movement called the Uplifters, who want to help the poor and the oppressed. Griffith paints the Uplifters as hypocritical and self-important, and in an ironic twist, Jenkins closes the mill in order to help fund the Uplifters, which puts all the workers out of jobs. The Boy and the Dear One, who have still not met, both move to a larger city to find work. The Boy gets involved with a crime lord called The Musketeer (Walter Long) until The Boy meets the Dear One and falls in love. The Boy no longer wants to be involved with The Musketeer and so the Musketeer frames The Boy for a crime which sends The Boy to jail. Meanwhile, the Dear One gives birth to a son. The Uplifters come and declare the Dear One unfit to be a mother, and take away her son. The Musketeer uses this opportunity to put the moves on the Dear One, telling her that he can help recover her baby. Eventually, after The Boy is released from jail, the Musketeer’s woman, the Friendless One (Miriam Cooper) gets jealous, which leads to The Boy being framed for murdering the Musketeer. The climax comes as the Dear One races to catch a train, as the boy is being led to the noose, to talk to the Governor (Ralph Lewis) so that The Boy can be pardoned.

The ancient Babylonian story revolves Prince Belshazzar (Alfred Paget) and the Mountain Girl (Constance Talmadge). The Mountain Girl is a stubborn and boorish girl who rebuffs all attempts at love because of her love for Belshazzar. Of course, though Belshazzar does help her out of a few scrapes, he does not return her affections as he is in love with the Princess Beloved (Seena Owen). Belshazzar, who worships the goddess Ishtar is targeted by the High Priest of Bel (Tully Marshall), who betrays the Prince to the Persians.

Fortunately, the other two stories are not as complicated. All you need to know about the Parisian story is that the king, Charles IX and his mother, Catherine de Medici, are Catholics. They hate the Protestants. It leads to a massacre. There are a lot of characters and subplots, but, ultimately, they are not important. Finally, I will assume that I do not have to recap the life of Jesus.

The stories are linked by the indelible image of Lillian Gish as The Eternal Mother, endlessly rocking a cradle. Griffith returns to this image many times during the film, and it is a compelling visual, though I must admit I am not entirely sure of its significance.

I am unsure what to think of this movie. To be honest, I had so much trouble keeping up with the plot that I didn’t get a chance to sit back and absorb the film. I do admire Griffith’s ambition and I have to admit that the sets and costumes were especially impressive. The crane shots of ancient Babylon, with its historically suspect elephants and grand columns, would be a marvel even by today’s standards (though I assume it would be computer-generated these days, making it less impressive). I think that the film shows off a lot of the techniques that Griffith used in The Birth of a Nation, but without the overt racism and smaller budget. I can’t deny that Intolerance has a much less focused plot, and I think that perhaps having four separate stories was a bit too ambitious. Add in subplots that go nowhere, characters who have almost no effect on the narrative as a whole, plus the heavy-handed message, and it’s not difficult to see why audiences were initially turned off by the film. But, I think that even Griffith’s supporters will admit that he has deficiencies in his plots and characterizations. Griffith is still watched today due to his innovative techniques and his undeniable visual sense. Perhaps that is why Griffith is so compelling as a filmmaker: his films have major weaknesses, but the strongest elements in his films are so powerful and amazing that it almost makes us forget about what went wrong.

Up next in Film Chronology: Broken Blossoms

One response to “Film Chronology – Intolerance (1916)

  1. After the harsh criticisms I’ve written about Griffith before this, some of which I’m about to repeat, I should probably start by saying that I do enjoy some of his films. Intolerance is one that I enjoy, despite the problems Rishi accurately describes. I don’t know what the Eternal Mother linking image means either, and that’s symptomatic of Griffith’s muddled thinking. The Huegenots story should have been left on the cutting room floor. I abhor Griffith’s propensity to lecture through his title cards. The characterization of the women reformers in the modern story is unpleasantly chauvinistic. The modern story also suffers from Griffith’s tendency to romanticize poverty.

    Nevertheless, while I watched Intolerance I didn’t really care about any of that, because so much of the film is spectacular and exciting and dramatic. The Babylonian sets and costuming are amazing. The extended finale brilliantly showcases the parallel editing technique that Griffith pioneered the use of and is still used in modern action films. Talmadge and Marsh give excellent performances and their characters are strong and engaging. Intolerance is a movie with verve. It gallops over the rough spots.

    On a historical note, the spectacular elements of the Babylonian sequence were new in American film, but not in world cinema. Italy made a big splash internationally around 1912-1914 with similar historical epics. Griffith had seen and been influenced by the Italian films in planning The Birth, and Intolerance was a deliberate (and successful) effort to beat them at their own game.

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