Intolerance, burning and slaying. Intolerance is D. W. Griffith’s response to the condemnations he had received in regards to The Birth of a Nation, which has over the years been criticized for its racist overtones yet also praised for its technological innovations for film history (it’s a case in which I admire the film more than I like it). As for D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance, I feel as if what Griffith is leaving behind made me rethink what I had perceived of him after The Birth of a Nation, because Intolerance goes ahead and speaks out against how closed-minded society’s viewpoints may be, within all eras, age groups, and races. It’s a film that is already a century old, and it is so ahead of its own time, it cannot be remade today no matter how much one can attempt, for even by the standards of what we have today, it is most simply too grand of a project.
Griffith’s primary focus with Intolerance is to tell of four separate stories within different eras: i) one set within the modern age about crime and redemption, ii) the story of Jesus Christ’s mission to his Crucifixion, iii) a story within the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre during the French Renaissance of 1572, and iv) a tale of the rise and fall of the Babylonian empire. We are also shown in between passages of time, a symbolic image of a mother rocking a baby cradle, as a means of representing the passages of time through all the generations. These stories are not particularly linked, but what Griffith is mastering right here is a unique experiment in regards to narrative, because the bonding that all four stories share ties within the common theme: intolerance. It literally is, as the title says, love’s struggle throughout the ages.
As these stories pass by, we see the image of the mother, played by Griffith favourite Lillian Gish, as she is rocking her own cradle carrying a baby. It would be easy to say that this is indeed representative of the large passages of time, but noting Griffith’s means of using the religious storyline, it is also symbolic in the manner that this mother is an entity watching over all of mankind. From time to time, the rhythm of the rocking of the cradle changes, which reflects the mother’s feelings about how the human race is leaving her with the particular mood of resentment. With the film’s common theme of intolerance to opposing views, we see that the chaos is moving the cradle at a faster rate. The movement of the cradle is vital to what Intolerance intends to address, for the baby is representative of religious or political followers and their conflicting beliefs, and the mother being the figure trying to put peace to all of it.
Seeing as Griffith intended Intolerance to work as a response for The Birth of a Nation, what I find most fascinating is how some would read it as Griffith letting his own true self come out, or just saying that it’s Griffith showing how intolerant we were to the views being expressed in said film. Yet the way I see it is that with the idea of intolerance running around with all of these different eras, it brings us to think about the universality of such a conflict. Whether it range from the class systems, to the political runnings, or down to racism, there is intolerance to be found anywhere in society, and Griffith’s intention is to show what it is doing to the mankind as a whole – for society is sinking down in its closed-mindedness, because certain parts refuse to accept others for what they are or what they stand for. And while I’m not doubting some of these beliefs are indeed wrong, like racism, sexism, or homophobia, Intolerance goes ahead and shows how said running issues in society just continue to bring down the human race more and more.
What’s especially fascinating is how for the time, the many set designs whether they be for a location as small as the city or somewhere as large as Babylonia, it most certainly is rather impressive just to think how something like this could be concocted in this manner. D. W. Griffith is never letting any of the sets and their ranging in sizes overwhelm him, for he has a sense of knowing where he wishes to take each storyline. He recognizes how big of an issue intolerance is within society, and maybe given the large sizes of the set pieces which Griffith is left to control in here, I feel as if there was a means of showing how a societal issue like this can take down anyone at a large sense of power.
Utilizing a narrative method that was unfamiliar for the time being, Intoleranceseamlessly weaves together all of these many storylines from different eras into one large film, and while they may not directly be linked to one another, it’s Griffith’s manner of addressing the theme of intolerance. But more interestingly, there’s a possibility that we have Griffith showing the trial of one character experiencing the damages upon society from all of these eras, which soon transfers onward to the head of the baby whom the mother is watching over, causing the cradle to rock much more out of balance. And quite frankly, the leading actresses from the Babylonian, American, and French storylines, (Constance Talmadge, Mae Marsh, and Margery Wilson, respectively) all seem to carry a similar-looking face from one another, which I feel goes on to show how amidst all this chaos, her own life is made more of a challenge, and as the baby, it was a foresighting of the damage.
Love’s struggle through the ages was most certainly a most difficult one, and D. W. Griffith’s portrayal of it in Intolerance is so accurate, it is simply hard to believe that it had come out nearly a century ago. Intolerance is an achievement within the world of filmmaking that can only come once within a lifetime. Not only is it innovative when it came to the overwhelming production and the unique methods with narrative, but also in a manner to which it still holds a message that is indeed relevant to our own world. Intolerance, or the refusal of acceptance in regards to a belief opposing yours, whether it be something as simple as an opinion or your religious or political orientations, or something as big as race or identity, brings down society more and more, like it did the empire of Babylon. I don’t know how exactly this could be a product of the human mind, for it is simply something out of the ordinary in just every manner.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Cohen Media Group.
Directed by D. W. Griffith
Screenplay by D. W. Griffith, Hettie Grey Baker, Tod Browning, Anita Loos, Mary H. O’Connor, Frank E. Woods
Produced by D. W. Griffith
Starring Vera Lewis, Ralph Lewis, Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, Constance Talmadge, Lillian Gish, Josephine Crowell, Margery Wilson, Frank Bennett, Elmer Clifton, Miriam Cooper, Alfred Paget
Release Year: 1916
Running Time: 210 minutes