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Intolerance

Intolerance(1916)

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Earlier this year the new disc label the Cohen Film Collection released a fine restoration of Douglas Fairbanks' silent classic The Thief of Bagdad. It's now following up that epic with what is still the considered the most grandiose silent movie ever made, D.W. Griffith's Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages. Cohen's digital restoration is quite an accomplishment: most film students were introduced to Griffith's masterpiece in mediocre prints that didn't convey the quality of G.W. "Billy" Bitzer's cinematography.

Intolerance was Griffith's next release after his incredibly successful, bitterly controversial Birth of a Nation. Deciding that his next career step needed to be something bigger than his just-finished film Mother and the Law, the producer-director decided to use it as just one part of a multi-story super-epic. The film's four separate narratives take place in entirely different eras. They do not play out one after another, but instead simultaneously. Griffith frequently cuts between them, bridging centuries in a single cut. The idea is that their common theme of injustice and intolerance will be reinforced as a constant part of the human condition.

The story thread taken from Mother and the Law is about a modern working class couple in crisis. After a cruel industrialist orders troops to fire on a labor demonstration, they are forced to move to a city slum. The Boy (Bobby Harron) hires on with a gangster. Nosy social 'Uplifters' see his wife the Dear One (Mae Marsh) struggling to raise her baby, and decide to take it away from her. The Boy is sentenced to the gallows for a murder he did not commit.

In the second, French storyline, religious persecution leads to the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572, with a Catholic Mass Murder of Huguenots. Innocent young Brown Eyes (Margery Wilson) is a victim. The third story takes place in Judea, and depicts events in the life of the Christ (Howard Gaye), ending with his crucifixion.

The fourth narrative is an epic tale of ancient Babylon. Prince Belshazzar (Alfred Paget) opens his empire to a wider number of religions, and prepares to marry his Princess Beloved (Seena Owen). Unknown to the Prince, the High Priest of Bel (Tully Marshall) is so fearful that his power has been diminished, he betrays Babylon to the conqueror Cyrus the Great. A lighter story involves the mischievous Mountain Girl (Constance Talmadge), who avoids a marriage auction and eventually becomes a fierce, devoted warrior for the Prince. After Babylon's high walls repel a direct assault by Cyrus' army, the High Priest follows through on his treachery. The Mountain Girl races to warn Belshazzar in time.

Griffith adds one more structural element. Like a repeated refrain in an epic song, the film repeatedly returns to a single image of the Eternal Mother (Lillian Gish) by a cradle, accompanied by a phrase from Walt Whitman: "Out of the cradle endlessly rocking." Griffith uses the image as a buffer between the stories.

The film's highly original narrative structure hasn't been used again, at least not on this scale. The historical and Biblical stories amplify the theme of social intolerance in the Modern Story. Griffith switches between the parallel narratives at least fifty times, often comparing internal content. For instance, the guilty verdict in the Modern Story is delivered just before Pontius Pilate hands down his judgment on Jesus in the Judean Story. The idea is that there is but one human drama, and our personal conflicts are replays of experiences shared by everyone who ever lived.

The most written-about part of Intolerance is the drawn out, suspenseful conclusion, in which the crosscutting between the stories accelerates to a dizzying climax. A car carrying the Dear One races to save the Boy from the hangman's noose, is intercut with The Mountain Girl's chariot as she hurries to warn Babylon of the Persian attack. The cutting pace becomes fairly frantic. Griffith's idea is to superimpose the excitement of one storyline onto the next, multiplying the drama. As most of the stories end tragically, the suspense heightens as the final climax approaches.

The four stories vary in filming and acting styles. Most scenes in the Modern Story are staged in conventional 1916 terms, in boxy sets with a static camera. But Griffith will also use dynamic shots taken from moving vehicles. Other scenes in the city slums express a gritty naturalism that matches the unwholesomeness of the occupants, including the femme fatale (Miriam Cooper). The French story shows off fancy costumes but is easily the weakest. The Judean episodes resemble dioramas From The Bible, with reverent graphic embellishments, such as when a cross is superimposed over the Jesus character. Griffith acknowledged that he made the Babylon sequence on a grand scale to out-spectacle the Italian epic Cabiria. The enormous set is certainly bigger than anything in the Pastrone movie, but Griffith wasn't comfortable moving the camera as much as the Italian director. Beyond the enormous moving 'elevator crane' angles, we see only a few shots that truck with Belshazzar as he walks.

But Griffith takes every opportunity to display extravagant violence in the Babylon battles. Break-apart dummies are beheaded on camera and spears are plunged into screaming victims. We also see experiments with erotic imagery. C.B. De Mille must have been impressed by the license shown in Griffith's harem sequence, which abounds with artful nudity.

Griffith defines intolerance rather loosely, as the absence of Love of One's Fellow Man. He's against greedy industrialists, power-mad High Priests and religious bigots. But the need for villains occasionally makes the Griffith seem intolerant as well. The "Uplifters" that take away the Dear One's baby are presented as sexually frustrated spinsters looking to make other people suffer. We aren't convinced that Griffith would feel any differently about the progressive feminist reformers that in 1916 were beginning to make progress against terrible social problems in the slums.

But Griffith displays a knack for feel-good sentiments likely to be welcomed by movie audiences. His epilogue shows armies on a battlefield dropping their weapons as the skies open up to admit an angelic host. It's still a highly emotional climax.

Critics have been debating the strengths and weaknesses of this gargantuan motion picture for almost a century. The extras on Cohen's disc tell us that original audiences had no trouble understanding the multiple story structure. The film's reported box office failure may have occurred because Griffith insisted on touring it with an expensive full orchestra. Another factor is that it was released during WW1, at a time when many newspapers and politicians were lobbying President Wilson to enter the war. That's not optimal timing for an essentially pacifist movie.

The Cohen Film Collection's Blu-ray of Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages is a beautiful encoding of this impressive show. The 2K digital restoration eliminates many of the common flaws dogging older film prints. The shots are steady, sharp and detailed. In the crane shots of the Babylon steps we can make out plenty of detail even when the view is fairly wide. Scenes end smoothly and the color tinting is even and consistent. Missing frames and tiny up-cuts are still present, but as they no longer jump they seem less obtrusive.

A second Blu-ray disc contains the disc extras plus two entire separate feature film presentations derived from Intolerance. The stand-alone version of Mother and the Law was finally issued on its own in 1919, and plays quite effectively. The Fall of Babylon assembles the epic segment into one narrative thread. To make audiences happy, a partial "happy" ending was shot, to exploit the blooming stardom of actress Constance Talmadge.

The must-see extra is silent movie authority Kevin Brownlow's entertaining, informative lecture featurette. Brownlow adds special insights and interesting detail to well-known facts about the movie. He has special praise for Carl Davis' orchestral score, which appears on this disc in 5.1 sound. An insert pamphlet contains essays by William M. Drew and Richard Porton.

By Glenn Erickson