Re-Birth Of A Bigot: D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) – Blu-ray review
Griffith nearly nails all three dimensions in the ultimate silent epic – there’s time-spanning breadth, spectacular height… and just about enough off-screen irony to fuel the depth.
(D.W. Griffith, 1916)
Watching Intolerance so soon after the release of Interstellar is a reminder that it’s very hard for cinema to learn new tricks. One of Christopher Nolan’s favourite gimmicks is to use cross-cutting to achieve a rhapsodic suspense between two otherwise distinct and unconnected events… but he’s nearly 100 late in adopting it, given that D.W. Griffith pioneered the technique in the early days of cinema.
Intolerance, especially, remains the wellspring for any film that isn’t content to stay in one place or time; it’s the model for Babel, Cloud Atlas and many others. The irony – one of many – is that the film’s genesis was born of crisis management and an opportunistic urge to save face, after Griffith was stung by criticism that his previous epic, The Birth Of A Nation, was racist. In cinema’s greatest ever piece of protesting too much (for Birth was and remains hideously racist) Griffith was reborn as a social commentator railing against intolerance throughout history. More irony.
Yet, rather than create something thematically unified, Griffth built his magnum opus around an existing idea for a modern-day melodrama about fate, crime and social cleansing. The remaining three chapters (the fall of Babylon, the life of Christ and the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre) use historical precedents to parallel elements of the modern story, a glass-half-empty parable that things have always been bad.
The disjointed distribution of the various chapters – you’d be forgiven for forgetting Jesus even appears in it, so seldom does Griffith return to Jerusalem – is what keeps the film fresh throughout its long running time. Only at the very end, when all four stories converge into one desperate, chronologically-scrambled fight for survival, does the patterning become predictable; until then, there’s an almost intuitive fluidity to the movement between stories.
The intuition is helped by Griffith’s naivety; this isn’t a film for psychological depth, with its emblematic, often unnamed heroes and heroines locked into their roles as martyrs or oppressors. Intolerance takes many forms in this parade of bigots and hypocrites, but Griffith’s fondness for fresh-faced naifs means that the overriding feeling is that history’s greatest crime is an intolerance of niceness.
Given the broad-brush approach, the inevitable stereotyping comes close to undermining his post-Birth retort about not himself being bigoted: he just about avoids accusations of anti-Semitism in his portrayal of the Pharisees (mainly because of how slight that section is) but there’s a thinly veiled misogyny about the harridan Reformists who are the villains of the modern section. Indeed, one caption advises that their intolerance stems from their ability to nail a man for themselves: #everydaysexism, 1916-style.
The exaggerated sincerity of Griffith’s grand statements tend towards pomposity, especially in the pedantic use of notes to add context to the intertitles – gloriously, one reads: “it was required that each man perspired every day.” But there’s a leavening wit in places, most notably in Constance Talmadge’s onion-chomping, tomboyish Mountain Girl, heroine of the Babylon section.
Ah, Babylon – for all of the experimental editing, the real reason to enjoy Intolerance is Griffith’s refusal to tone down his directorial flourishes in the mise en scene. Ornate set and costume design help to delineate the time zones, but in Babylon he goes for broke with huge replica walls dominated by carved elephants, and thousands of extras attacking in towers and chariots in one of cinema’s first (and arguably still one of its best) battle sequences. There’s even a surprising amount of pre-censorship titillation, be it the barely-clad harem or the copious gore, including a decapitation! The sheer scope and audacity is genuinely gobsmacking, and the one thing the film will make you intolerant of is today’s lazy, CGI-dependent makers of so-called epics.