Saturday, 6 July 2013

The birth of the blockbuster… Intolerance (1916)

“There’s almost nothing in the entire vocabulary of cinema that you won’t find in this film…” Orson Welles*

This was DW Griffith’s follow up to The Birth of a Nation and a film intended to show that, contrary to appearances, he was unwilling to tolerate intolerance… Armed with a hefty budget following Birth’s huge success, DW was able to consolidate massively on the techniques employed in the earlier film and his ambition ran riot creating narrative elaborations which are still a challenge for modern viewers.

Featuring incredibly lavish sets, 125,000 extras and 7,500 horses, Intolerance is technically far more advanced than the modestly budgeted Birth.  There is an abundance of camera mobility and smooth cutting between all the scenes (even BoaN had rough edges…). 

Thinking big on a budget...
There is also "the single most amazing shot in the history of film" as Billy Bitzer’s camera descends from some 150 feet in the air down towards the throng, as Byzantium celebrates its initial victory over the Persians. The camera lingers in medium shot showing the main characters amidst thousands of extras. Griffith repeats this graceful moment a number of times and it must have had the impact of a dozen Imax screens in 3D… genuinely astonishing.

Around a repeated framing shot of Lillian Gish sitting over a crib, representing Eternal Motherhood, Intolerance weaves four separate tales from different periods in history, all of which are intended to show the impact of intolerance on the scale of human misery.

Two roles for Constance Talmadge
In every tale it tends to be Griffith’s women who are the focus and there are striking, very different, performances from Mae Marsh, Miriam Cooper and Constance Talmadge in particular.

This a complex and difficult narrative to describe without getting bogged down… but I’ll have a go.

New York City 1914 

The Mother and the Law is set in “modern day” America in 1914 and shows innocent working class folk being crushed by a mixture of industrial relations disputes and moral crusaders. Interestingly Griffith demonises the female “Uplifters” who force goodness on their lowers and do more harm than good. Was this another instance of his struggle to accommodate changes in suffrage?

Mrs Jenkins and the "Uplifters"
Here Mary T. Jenkins (Vera Lewis) the sister of mill boss (Sam de Grasse), comes under the sway of the Uplift movement and causes her brother to invest too heavily in their activities. This leads to his having to cut wages by 10%... a strike ensues which is forcibly put down by militia and the factories armed protectors.

How the other half dance...
I had to check here but there were numerous examples of force being used against trades unions and strikes being curtailed by organised violence from the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 to the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike…

“They squeeze the money out of us and use it to advertise themselves by reforming us…” feels a little like DW mistrusting liberal sentiment though…

Mae Marsh from girl to woman
The victims of the strike are forced out and have to move to the City. The Dear One (Mae Marsh) struggles in near poverty whilst The Friendless One (Miriam Cooper) falls in with the wrong crowd, a Musketeer of the Slums (Walter Long) who leads her down the path of prostitution.

Robert Harron, Walter Long and Miriam Cooper
The Boy (Robert Harron) is also led into a life of crime. Harron is superb and it’s so sad that he died just a few years’ later after failing to get the lead in Way Down East (R Bartlemass got that).

The Boy tries to go straight inspired by his developing romance with the Dear One but shortly after they wed, he is framed by the Musketeer. Their child is born after he is sent down and Dear One loses even this after the Uplifters decide she is an unfit mother.

Ready for my close-up Mr Griffith...
The Boy is released and confronts the Musketeer who is shot in a jealous rage by the Friendless One (why couldn’t they just have had names DW!?)… But it’s the Boy who gets tried for the murder as she nervously keeps her deadly secret.

Will injustice prevail?  Will the modern day Pharisees crush hope through their selfish desire to do good on their terms…

Babylon 539 BC  

Nothing could be further from working class struggle than the splendour of ancient Babylon although any similarities with Hollywood excess are more than co-incidental.

This segment is really where the scale of Griffith’s vision  really becomes apparent… literally.

Griffith said afterwards that he should just have made the Babylonian story but without the juxtaposition and the immensity, Intolerance just wouldn’t be the same…

Here the very secular conflict between Prince Belshazzar of Babylon and Cyrus the Great of Persia has its foundation on the religious intolerance arising from two rival Babylonian gods, Bel-Marduk and Ishtar. The film doesn’t go into the precise differences in belief but it’s clear that the Babylonians are more than a little decadent…

The Princess Beloved
All is excess in the court of Prince Belshazzar (Alfred Paget) who offers to build an even more splendid city than Babylon for his favourite, The Princess Beloved (Seena Owen).

Against this royal backdrop stands out The Mountain Girl played by Norma’s little sister Constance Talmadge. Constance has all of the Talmadge energy with a more comedic flavour and helps rescue this section and the whole film from earnest indulgence… She not only roughs up most of the male cast but can seemingly handle archery, battle-gear and chariot riding.

“…touch my skirt and I’ll scratch your eyes out!” she says as she munches on a spring onion…

The Mountain Girl impresses the Prince
The Mountain Girl rejects the advances of warrior-singer Rhapsode (Elmer Clifton) as her Prince gives her royal pardon to marry who she likes… she’s the most loyal subject in the whole city.

The High Priest of Bel-Marduk (Tully Marshall - who I’d last seen in The Devil’s Needle), plans to betray his Prince as he secretly worships Ishtar… Cyrus’ armies approach the city and all hell breaks lose.

These battle scenes are amongst the most impressive in all silent film and, as with Ben Hur, involved a lot of actual violence amongst the immense cast of extras. Assistant director, Joseph Henabery’s interview with Kevin Brownlow in The Parades’ Gone By gives an excellent first-hand account of this along with the making of Intolerance… Griffith’s ability to martial story and crew is truly remarkable.

The siege is an epic struggle, literally with…war machines, elephants, beheadings and bodies falling off the massive battlements all in glorious tints of red, purple and blue as the siege of Babylon is won by Belshazzar’s forces.

Then we have Bitzer's stunning camera move: a 1000 Caligari’s in one as the camera swoops down over the huge set teeming with a living mass dwarfed by the sheer scale of the set…

Carry on Babylon
Meanwhile the mind is further boggled as… “in the Temple of Love – The sacred dance in memory of the resurrection of Tammuz.” Babylon and on… more de Mille than Griffith…

But it’s not over as the rebellious priests prepare their ultimate betrayal and the massed armies return under brooding red skies…

Renaissance France 1572 

This section is shorter yet no less affecting as religious intolerance leads the Roman Catholic royal family to order the death of Protestant Huguenots in St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre.

In the court of the conflicted King... 
There’s a good cast with Frank Bennett as the conflicted King Charles IX of France dominated by his spiteful mother Catherine de Medici (Josephine Crowell) and his effeminate younger brother Monsieur La France, Duc d'Anjou (Maxfield Stanley)… From a modern perspective this looks like Griffith’s “intolerating” women and gay men…

This man has two dogs in his doublet...
There’s a romantic sub-plot between Brown Eyes (Margery Wilson another Griffith child-woman) and
Prosper Latour  (Eugene Pallette ... who’s long career included  Going Straight with Norma T and Mantrap with Clara B). The wonderful Spottiswoode Aitken plays Brown Eyes' father – I’ve  recently seen him in BoaN, Nomads of the North, The Eagle and The Goose Woman.

Spotiswood Aitken (middle), Margery Wilson and Eugene Pallette
Catherine has an audience with the King to secure his signature to the order for the massacre of St Bartholomew. At first he refuses to sign…but the intolerants sway him after a long session: “We must destroy or be destroyed.”

St Bartholomew’s morning, the bell toll and the massacre begins…

Judea c. 27 AD
This is the shortest section but the pivotal one in terms of Griffith’s “message”. “The Nazarene” (Howard Gaye) attends the Wedding at Cana where the groom is George Walsh and the bride is Bessie Love…

Bessie Love (centre)
He turns water into wine and makes the wedding party much to the displeasure of the Pharisees… “meddlers then as now. ‘There is too much pleasure-seeking among the people.’”

The Pharisees are shown as self-righteous hypocrites and the ancient version of the Uplifters and the Catholic extremists in France.

Is one of the Pharisees Erich von Stroheim?
Jesus prevents an adulteress about to be stoned: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone...”

Precisely DW.

The Nazarene is last seen labouring under the weight of the cross outside the Roman Judgement Hall, after the verdict of Pontius Pilate: “Let him be crucified.”


The cuts between stories get quicker as the film nears its climax(es)… and the stories simply smash together – “Intolerance, burning and slaying.” A very modern mix of suspense, spectacular action and the hope for a happy ending… but not everyone can be saved.

As the film winds up, angelic hoards descend over a bloody battle field and the fighting stops, prisoners dissolve into a prison wall, children play in the fields… and we see the last glimpse of Eternal Motherhood… Lillian has been sitting there a long time!

Battlefield playground...
“When cannon and prison bars, wrought in the fires of intolerance…
And perfect love shall bring peace forevermore.
Instead of prison walls – Bloom flowery fields.”

As Mr Welles said, Griffith was anchored in Victorian theatre and “old fashioned” in parts of his outlook yet his technical mastery was so modern: this was the birth of the blockbuster.

I watched the Kino DVD which is taken from an excellent quality 35mm print and runs out at 3 hours 17 minutes. It features an excellent score from experienced film composer Joseph Turrin that expertly mixes a modernistic movie tone with more contemporary themes.

Interestingly, Intolerance was also released in two other versions focusing on the single stories, The  Mother and the Law and Babylon… this latter film featured a less downbeat resolution for Constance’s character. This clip is on the Kino DVD along with excerpts from Cabiria (1914) and TheLast Days of Pompeii (1913), both of which influence Griffith and have featured on this blog.

It helped to provide an enjoyable watching experience in spite of the film’s length and convolution. Griffith’s best? Flawed certainly but a masterpiece that is still exhilarating as much as it is challenging.

 *From the introduction to “The Silent Year: Films from the Collection of Paul Killiam”

Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn
Top trivia: The Denishawn Dancers played the Dancers of Tammuz… A sixteen year old Louise Brooks joined them six years later, progressing to dance alongside Ted Shawn before being fired by Ruth St. Denis for wanting life handed to her on a “silver salver”…. A phrase she kept locked away for rainy days!


  1. While the Babylon sets are amazing, I like "The Mother and the Law" segment the best. I have a little "thing" for Miriam Cooper (I'll be you don't hear THAT everyday!), so I really enjoy her performance here.

  2. Oh, there is certainly something about Miriam! A very different "face" compared to other Griffith leads - a timeless anomaly.

    Constance T almost steals the show from the Babylonian excesses as well. Boundless, bonkers energy!

  3. It must have been so exciting in 1916 to watch the car chase down the train. Cars were new then, and the idea that one could go as fast as a train was ridiculous. It wasn't until the car took a shortcut that the audience thought it had a chance.

    1. There are so many great chases involving cars and trains - an exciting novelty!

      Plenty of near misses too, from Buster Keaton, Mabel Normand and others!