Director: D.W. Griffith
Screenplay: D.W. Griffith, Anita Loos, Hettie Grey Baker, Tod Browning, Mary H. O’Connor, Frank E. Woods
Starring: Robert Harron, Mae Marsh, Constance Talmadge, Alfred Paget, Miriam Cooper, Margery Wilson
Producer: D.W. Griffith
Running Time: 168 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
My initial introduction to the work of D.W. Griffith didn’t go down too well. In the middle of last year I sat down to watch his controversial classic The Birth of a Nation and I did not enjoy the experience. Not only was the film uncomfortably offensive (which I was expecting), but I found the first half incredibly tedious. It was clearly a work of great importance, but I found it a real chore to watch. So when I was offered the chance to review his epic follow up, Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages, I almost turned it down. However, my desire to work my way through the classics crept in and after enjoying a run of excellent silent films over the last couple of months I decided to take the plunge.
Through groundbreaking intercutting techniques, Intolerance tells four stories of love struggling through intolerance of various forms in different eras and locations. The earliest is set in ancient Babylon, where a free-spirited mountain girl fights for her prince amongst a time of religious rivalry. The next shows a few scenes from the later life of Jesus Christ when the Pharisees condemned him. Another shorter section is set in 1572, following a doomed relationship during the build up to St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris. The final and most extensive section (alongside the one in Babylon) is set in the present day (1916), where social reformers make the lives of a young couple increasingly more difficult.
I can safely say Intolerance is a much easier watch than The Birth of a Nation. Of course you don’t have the overt racism, which helps. Some elements are still dated of course (it is almost 100 years old), but its core themes are fairly universal and I actually found a couple of the female roles to be more substantial and stronger than in many modern films (although there are still a few flaky stereotypes here and there). I will say that the film can be a bit hypocritical though. For one, although some call Intolerance an apology for the racism in The Birth of a Nation, there is a notable lack of mention of racial intolerance in the four tales. Also, the film could hardly be called balanced in its views. The reformers in particular are ridiculed at every turn and made out to be evil, jealous old hags. No thought is made to any benefits which might be apparent in their work. I wouldn’t say I agree with what the reformers did, but I’m sure they had good intentions. Here, they’re just displayed as miserable wretches who want to spoil everyone’s fun and ruin their lives.
A lot of these issues are to be expected with films of this age though. In general, Intolerance is ahead of its time and, like I said before, is an easy watch. It’s a lengthy film, running at close to three hours (or over that, depending on the frame rate of your copy), but it doesn’t feel slow or dull. This is largely down to Griffith’s intercutting of the four stories. Granted this isn’t done quite as fluidly as in similar modern films, with a heavy reliance on inter-titles, but it certainly helps in pacing up the film and the finale is incredibly exciting as it jumps between the climaxes of all the stories.
One of the main selling points of the film though is its scale. The Babylonian story in particular is famous for the sheer size of the sets and number of extras and it didn’t disappoint. The big wides, complete with early ‘crane shots’ (which didn’t use a crane – supposedly just a giant platform on wheels), are truly spectacular. Even with today’s CGI filled extravaganzas (or maybe because of them) I found the visuals here breathtaking. Very few, if any, films since have been close to matching the grandeur on display in Intolerance.
I had already seen some of the most famous shots in terms of production design though. What really blew me away were the the action scenes. In particular, the battles in Babylon were hugely impressive and genuinely exciting. As well as being surprisingly brutal (there are several full on, one-shot decapitations!), the scale and level of carnage is mind-boggling. Peter Jackson must have seen this when preparing for The Lord of the Rings as the fortress siege reminded me of similar scenes in his famous trilogy. You’ve got big moving towers for instance being used as protection and to climb over the battlements which are reminiscent to those used in The Return of the King.
I haven’t rated this quite as highly as some of the other silent classics I’ve reviewed recently though. Overall, the film didn’t have the charm of something like The Thief of Bagdad and the blunt moral high ground it took rubbed me up the wrong way from time to time. However, for showing the world what was truly possible with the medium of film at such an early time, the film must be applauded and it’s a testament to its quality that it remains an enjoyable experience today.
Intolerance is out on 8th December in the UK on Blu-Ray, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema Series. The new transfer looks and sounds fantastic. For a film which is close to 100 years old, it looks incredible. There are a couple of soft shots which were maybe from different source material, but overall the detail is incredible and there is little sign of damage or degradation. For the soundtrack you get a choice of stereo or 5.1 versions of Carl Davis’ magnificent score.
This is a 2 Blu-Ray set, but not due to the film being split over two discs or because of a feature length documentary. Instead you get two bonus feature films. Before you get too excited though, these are The Fall of Babylon and The Mother and the Law, which are actually just two of the main stories from Intolerance released as shorter individual films. I didn’t watch them all the way through, but I had a quick look to see what they were like and they’ve not been quite as meticulously remastered as the main film, but they look ok. It’s great that they were included in the set, but they’re probably for completists only as you’re not really getting anything new and I doubt the stories have the same impact on their own.
You do get a 20 minute interview with preservationist Kevin Brownlow as well as the bonus films and this is very interesting to watch.
Finally, as always with Masters of Cinema releases, you get a leaflet in with the package. I didn’t get a digital copy like I usually do, so I can’t comment on its content, but I’m sure it’s as invaluable an addition as always.