As D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance thunders through its four simultaneous climaxes, cutting between the stories that make up its ambitious narrative, a “small” but powerful image recurs. Three corrections officers, each brandishing a razor-like blade, stand poised over a matching set of precariously thin cords stretched across a table, preparing to sever them and release the gallows trapdoor that will send a prisoner framed for murder to his death. This economical tableau, amping up the suspense in a modern-day urban melodrama of a reformed hood (Robert Harron) married to a devoted woman (Mae Marsh) who races against time to set him free, is a perfect example of Griffith’s mastery of montage in the service of suspense, one among many gifts that made disciples of all filmmakers who followed him in the silent and early sound eras. This shot, like the similarly simple medium-long view of a cradle-rocking Eternal Mother (Lillian Gish) used to connect Intolerance’s narrative skeins, is as typical of Griffith’s cinematic art as the unprecedented, jaw-dropping spectacle he employs; his epic effects, in this masterwork particularly, complement and heighten the passions of human history, both violent and loving.
Intolerance’s politics don’t reproduce the unsightly racist agenda of the director’s formally pioneering, Klansman-glorifying The Birth of a Nation. Working in the wake of that divisive blockbuster, Griffith wasn’t intending an apology for his landmark Civil War story, but in the scope and breadth of this 1916 follow-up, he insistently keeps the oppressed (none as dubious as Birth of a Nation’s vengeful, defeated Confederates) at the heart of its drama. That couple whose final crisis is resolved at the hangman’s platform, identified as “The Boy” and “The Dear One” in archetypal naming extended to all but royal and elite characters, find themselves at the edge of the abyss after the bloody strikebreaking of a millionaire costs The Boy his job and his father’s life, and a band of puritanical reformers—caricatured as harpies and “meddlers”—later results in lost custody of the pair’s child. Griffith and his uncredited intertitle writer, Anita Loos, explicitly shame the authorities and purveyors of sanctimony by contrasting their hypocrisies with the mission and death of Christ (which gets the least amount of screen time, efficiently presenting a then “universal” standard for American morality). Jesus’s “Go and sin no more” leads into the watchdog scolds seizing the Dear One’s baby, and the Crucifixion is intercut with the Boy’s brush with execution—the state policy of “a murder for a murder,” as it’s phrased on screen.
That such a sweeping vision of societal failings can be lost on careless viewers of Intolerance is unsurprising, as its spectacle, all $2.5 million worth, was unprecedented and in some respects is still unsurpassed in eye-popping gigantism. The episode surrounding the fall of Babylon, centering on a traitorous high priest and peppy Constance Talmadge as an onion-chewing, chariot-driving Mountain Girl, features a celebrated moving shot showcasing a mile’s worth of stairs, walls, totemic statuary, and extras, all “real” objects taking up physical space in cinematographer Billy Bitzer’s stunning depth of field. The director himself was so enraptured with it he nearly replicates it later to introduce a dance of beaded women, prematurely celebrating the Babylonian repulsion of the invading armies of Cyrus of Persia.
With voyeuristic footage of semi-nude vestal virgins and battle scenes featuring beheadings, gory spearings, and flaming mobile towers filled with warriors, Griffith the showman serves up sex and violence generously in a film that anticipates half a dozen movie genres to come, including, “when it’s bad, DeMille,” in Pauline Kael’s view. (A curious judgment by a critic who claimed to value quality trash, for the mix of sensuality and exploitation makes for a much tastier stew than would wall-to-wall persecution.) In the fourth story, of the 16th-century massacre of the Protestant minority by reigning French Catholics, Griffith again puts women at both ends of the moral spectrum, with a cackling Catherine de Medici engineering the bloody fate of a Huguenot waif (Margery Wilson) and her family. A throne isn’t the true seat of power; in a baroque touch, the spineless French king gags and heaves when manipulated into ordering the mass killing.
Intolerance is still the work of a man of his time, a white Southern Methodist champion of Victorian codes—albeit one who defends young mothers having medicinal nips of whisky. With her lusting suitor pounding at her slum apartment’s door, the Dear One prays, “Help me to be a strong-jawed jane.” But Griffith’s film, in its trailblazing use of montage to fuse parallel plots, is also anchored in its time for direct social critique in ways that Hollywood has generally skirted for a century. “Clear the property,” orders the mill owner from his plush, cavernous study, and hired goons and militiamen fire on strikers as was common in the pre-World War years, with a painted slogan in the background delivering the film’s thesis through the gun smoke: “The same to-day as yesterday.” Griffith delivers three bummer endings out of four, reprieved only by an epilogue that envisions the descent of a heaven-made peace upon the Earth; that the film underwhelmed at the box office isn’t hard to grasp. Nor is it irreconcilable that the aesthetic genius forged a triumph out of the victory of the Klan in The Birth of a Nation saw the ruin of war and hatred across the ages in this film, with Gish’s mother accompanied by Walt Whitman’s “Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking…” Like Whitman, Griffith contradicted himself, and contained multitudes.
In the decades since its rights fell into public domain, Intolerance has been seen in countless iterations from a score of sources, but the 2K restoration on view here exceeds all standards of digital cleanup of a silent film I’ve seen. Virtually no scratches or other debris remain, and the only soft images are in some discreet topless shots of the virgins of Ishtar (according to some sources, lensed and inserted into the film by someone other than D.W. Griffith). As for visual detail, the meticulous set décor and thousands of extras all register with astonishing clarity; there are shots where you could probably count every brick in the walls of Babylon. Scenes are color-tinted according to the scheme used for roadshow (i.e., movie-palace) exhibition during the film’s original run.
A new orchestral score by Carl Davis complements Griffith’s epic well, with the option of 2.0 or 5.1 surround listening. Davis, the reigning composer of ambitious new music for restored silent classics, draws on established melodies fitting the different epochs of the drama, from "In the Good Old Summertime" to the medieval "Dies Irae," as well as fitting his own booming orchestrations to the battle and chase sequences.
Supplements are led by the 1919 feature-length versions of two of Intolerance’s plot strands. The Mother and the Law is an expansion of the modern-day melodrama, one that required very little additional shooting as Griffith was preparing it as a stand-alone film before hitting upon the idea for his epic. He begins this version with a defensive series of title cards that distinguish between the meddling reformist villains of his film ("We need laws to make people good") and more compassionate activists (dramatized in a later scene at a Salvation Army mission). Adding to the miseries of the central couple of the story, here their child dies a neglectful death after being taken from the Dear One on trumped-up charges of negligence. The 62-minute version of The Fall of Babylon adds a few scenes that focus more attention on Constance Talmadge’s heroic Mountain Girl, and gives her a happier fate than the earlier film.
In a 20-minute video interview, silent-film scholar Kevin Brownlow explains how Griffith sought to equal or top the 1914 Italian epic Cabiria, that a bit with a found coin clued audiences in to seeing the wage-slashing mill owner as modeled on John D. Rockefeller, and relates anecdotes told to him by the crew of Intolerance on the mechanics of the Babylonian "crane" shot (actually done with an elevator attached to a moving tower) and the extras’ near-fatal enthusiasm in heaving large foam "rocks" from the heights of the set’s city walls. A pair of booklet essays, by Richard Porton and William M. Drew, cover the muddled ideology expressed through the film by Griffith, as well as the production history (the director was still tinkering with it as late as 1926). A trailer for theatrical showing of this restoration completes the set.
D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece, likely the most influential film ever made, has been given new life with a gold-standard digital cleanup.