1 Year, 100 Movies #49 Intolerance (1916)

by Trey Hock on January 10, 2011

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!

Now honestly I could talk until I am blue in the face about the importance of D.W. Griffith’sIntolerance.” I could tell you it’s a masterpiece, that it’s a triumph, that you all must see it, and almost every one of you will choose to skip this early black and white, silent film.

You know what? I’m okay with that.

This film is important, and it does some pretty incredible things. It’s also two and a half hours long and the 1st act is really difficult to get through. But perhaps there are one or two of you out there, who are patient, adventurous and looking for an extremely rewarding challenge. If this sounds like you, then I dare you. Watch this film.

“Intolerance,” released in 1916, is a remarkably rich and complex film. Griffith tells four stories, tales of intolerance throughout the ages, and weaves them all together as dictated by each story’s emotional arc. The stories are the Modern, Judean, French, and Babylonian tales.

In the Modern tale, a young woman and her family fall victim to the greed of radical capitalists, and their desire to reform and “uplift” the less fortunate of society. The Dear One (Mae Marsh) has a happy life with her Father (F.A. Turner) until a strike between the workers and mill owner becomes an irreconcilable riot. (Music begins at 3 seconds.)

Here you can see one of the difficulties with watching this film, image quality. Even the best transfer or restoration leaves the viewer with a largely degraded image. This film is almost one hundred years old, and the celluloid film stock of the time did not age well. There were a number of times when the titles were almost indistinguishable from the background. I hate to get stuck on a technical detail, but the degradation of image and the difficulty with reading titles does affect a viewer’s ability to enjoy “Intolerance.”

The Modern tale is the focus of “Intolerance,” and each of the other tales bolster or reinforce the particular moments within the Modern Tale.

To briefly summarize each story, the Judean tale tells the story of Jesus and how intolerance towards his teachings of peace and love ultimately leads to his crucifixion. The French tale is the story of 16th century France and how Catherine’s massacre of the Huguenots over religious differences destroys a budding romance which crosses religious lines. Finally the Babylonian tale shows a political dispute between the followers of two different Babylonian gods, which ultimately leads to the fall of Babylon.

See I told you that “Intolerance” was complex. If you thought that “Pulp Fiction,” and its non-linear storytelling was something inherently modern well think again. Here Griffith weaves four distinct stories into one coherent film. In 1916. 100 years ago. Take that Tarantino.

Let’s get back to the Modern tale. The Dear One moves with her father to the city. There she meets and marries the Boy (Robert Harron), a young man who turns to crime because of his inability to find work. With his new bride and baby on the way, the Boy tries to escape his life of crime, but the local Musketeer (Walter Long), the crime boss, frames him for robbery.

With her husband sent to prison, the Dear One is left to raise the new baby alone. The “Uplifters,” the ones responsible for the strife and “reform” of the mill town, now turn their focus to unfit mothers. They look in on the Dear One.

The Uplifters return and take her baby. Babylon sits, with invading forces outside of its walls. Jesus waits for Pilate’s verdict, and Catherine moves to secure permission to destroy the Huguenots. So ends Act One.

This first part of “Intolerance” feels long. Perhaps, as a contemporary film viewer, I am steeped in film language, and Griffith labors over fine details that I understand more quickly than a normal motion picture patron in the early days of film. There are also significantly more title cards in the first hour and a half than in the final hour. Griffith has put all of his stories in motion and now it’s time to get to the action.

In Babylon, Prince Belshazzar (Alfred Paget) throws a party for Princess Beloved (Seena Owen), while the forces of Cyrus (George Siegmann), mount outside the city walls.

Talk about colossal hospitality, this scene has it. Boasting over 3000 extras, extravagant sets, and lavish costumes, the Babylonian tale in particular is a sheer marvel of accomplishment. This perhaps is the cinematic equivalent to the Great Wall or the Pyramid of Giza. It is an accomplishment that is so great, so astounding that one can hardly take in its size and scope. Now when you just need ten guys in costumes to create an army in your computer, it’s hard to fathom how one makes this party in Babylon happen practically.

Again we return to the Modern tale. The Boy is released from prison and returns to his wife, but the Musketeer makes unwanted advances. The Musketeer’s “girlfriend,” the Friendless One (Miriam Cooper), follows the Musketeer and in a moment of rage from a window ledge shoots and kills the Musketeer. The Boy is blamed for the murder, and this time it’s the gallows that await him.

In this scene you can see how Griffith folds the emotional content of the Judean story into that of the Modern tale. The decision of Pilate predicts the ruling of the court and the jury. I would also like to point out how incredibly the brilliant soft focus extreme close-up of the Dear One works to convey her despair over her husband’s sentence.

The final twenty minutes of the film whiz by at breakneck speed. The film jumps from one story to the next without titles at this point, and yet the film is cohesive and held together by the emotions of the moment.

In the following scene, Griffith ties all the stories together. While the Dear One races to catch the Governor and secure a pardon for her husband, Jesus carries his cross to Golgotha, the Huguenots are slaughtered, and Babylon’s destroyers race to the city.

Motion pictures as an artistic medium had existed for hardly ten years (twenty if you count the early documentary works of Edison and the Lumière Brothers), and yet here is a director interweaving four distinct stories together seamlessly.

Griffith expanded the story in “Intolerance” as a response to the claims of racism that accompanied the release of his far more famous “The Birth of a Nation,” (1915) which was on the original 1998 AFI list. “Intolerance” because of its embedded response to the criticism of “The Birth of a Nation” makes a compelling addition to the revised list. The scale of this film alone makes it a worthy contender. Also by removing “The Birth of a Nation” AFI can dance around touchy racial issues that surround the early years of film.

Griffith is the definitive precursor to the modern film director. He must have a presence on the AFI list, and since no one’s going to choose “Broken Blossoms,” (1919) my personal favorite of Griffith’s work, and the historical baggage that comes with “The Birth of a Nation” could have many crying foul, then “Intolerance” makes a compelling choice. Sure the first half is slow, but the stunning scope of the film paired with the complexities of story make the second half thrilling to watch.

Next on the list #48 “Rear Window” (1954)

For links to #50-59, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #50 The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

For links to #60 – 69, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #60 Duck Soup (1933)

For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)

For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)

For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Eric Melin January 10, 2011 at 11:04 pm

It’s so weird to see these shots of people from almost 100 years ago with their old modes of acting and heavy make-up and extravagant costumes paired up with something so modern as fractured storytelling. Couple that with the epic crane shot on the steps of Babylon, and the thousands of extras and it makes you appreciate not only the scope Griffith was going for, but the amount of work it took to achieve it in camera. Digital VFX have spoiled us so rotten–there is something so alive about seeing these clips, even as they look completely antiquated. Its a fascinating dichotomy. Thanks for a great, honest article on this movie, Trey! I need to finally watch the whole damn thing in its entirety.

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2 Shelby January 11, 2011 at 10:49 am

I’m sold. Will watch it soon.

Wasn’t D.W. Griffith kind of a bit racist, though, to have a movie about and titled “Intolerance”? I’m obviously not the first to bring up this possible hypocrisy—-and maybe I’m thinking of someone else?

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3 Trey Hock January 11, 2011 at 12:14 pm

Eric, it is weird to see someone so long ago directing in a way that many would claim as modern. Still it’s exciting and worth a look. Just be prepared for the first hour and a half. Most of it’s set-up. It’s worthwhile and interesting, but can be really slow also.

Shelby, your right. If you read my second to last paragraph, I address this.

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4 Shelby January 11, 2011 at 1:07 pm

Well, my face is red.

In my own defense, I read up to the 3:14 clip and started writing the comment because it reminded me of BOAN. For real. Guess I neglected to read the rest.

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5 Eric Melin January 11, 2011 at 1:47 pm

Trey-

I’m thinking of how quickly film language developed in this short amount of time between Lumiere and Griffith. People who saw the Lumiere film of the train coming at them ducked the first time they saw it.

Georges Méliès was doing plenty of special effects but hardly used camera movement at all. It’s crazy how fast visual perception changed in that short amount of time because if you think about it, it didn’t advance too much in the 60 years that followed “Intolerance.”

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6 Trey Hock January 11, 2011 at 3:54 pm

Shelby, no worries. That clip is pretty awesome and distracting.

Eric, yeah it’s totally weird to think about the fact that film language was pretty well established by the time “talkies” arrive on the scene. Even surrealist/experimental film was in full swing by the late 20s. In someways it makes it easier to be a tough critic of contemporary films. It also makes those few current films that are executed brilliantly, even more special.

Just wish that more people would take the time to check out the films that came first and established the foundation for all other films.

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7 Rye January 13, 2011 at 4:15 pm

Trey,

I just discovered your blog/quest a few days ago, and I really enjoy it. Like you, a few years back I made it my mission to watch all 100 movies on AFI’s list (though not in order.)

Ironically, I just completed the list a couple days ago when I watched… you guessed it… “Intolerance”.

I saved it for last because I was NOT looking forward to watching 3 hours and 15 minutes of a 95-year-old film.

You’re right, the first act was slow. To be honest, if I didn’t need to watch this movie, I would have probably stopped. But I’m glad I kept going because the 2nd act was quite enjoyable. Some of the things Griffith was able to do is nothing short of incredible.

Keep up the good work.

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8 Shelby January 14, 2011 at 9:30 am

I must say that the discussion here is pretty awesome, though I can’t hang with you cine-history experts. Definitely makes me want to learn a lot more.

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9 Trey Hock January 14, 2011 at 2:54 pm

Thanks for the encouragement, Rye. Glad you took on the list and I can’t wait to hear more from you as I continue on my way to #1.

Shelby, don’t worry about being a cine-expert. Most of my favorite comments are the ones that make each film personal. Discussion around Pulp Fiction and Raiders of the Lost Ark focused almost solely on viewing experiences. So you should never feel shy or out of your depth. We are after all talking about a popular medium. Keep those comments coming.

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