1919 in Film

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Madame DuBarry

The Tantalizing Fly

The Oyster Princess

From Hand to Mouth

Sunnyside

Yankee Doodle in Berlin

J’accuse

False Faces

The Grim Game

The Hayseed

Different From The Others

A Day’s Pleasure

Male and Female

When the Clouds Roll By

Captain Kidd’s Kids

The Doll

Feline Follies

Back Stage

True Heart Susie

The Delicious Little Devil

Endurance

Sir Arne’s Treasure

Daddy-Long-Legs

The Sentimental Bloke

The Roaring Road

Bumping into Broadway

Broken Blossoms

The Lost Battalion

Victory

The Clown’s Pup

Blind Husbands

The Wicked Darling

Ravished Armenia

Bolshevism on Trial

The Miracle Man

1918 in Film

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The Cook

Father Sergius

A Dog’s Life

The Heart of Humanity

Out West

The Sinking of the Lusitania

The Bond

Are Crooks Dishonest?

La dixième symphonie [The Tenth Symphony]

Tarzan of the Apes

The Bell Boy

I Don’t Want To Be A Man

Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley

The Outlaw and His Wife

The Blue Bird

Shoulder Arms

My Four Years in Germany

Old Wives For New

Fabiola

‘Blue Blazes’ Rawden

Stella Maris

M’Liss

The Whispering Chorus

Moonshine

Mickey

Intolerance

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After my very mixed feelings about the DW Griffith’s beautiful, appalling racist epic The Birth of a Nation, I was keen to check out the next film he made, Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages. I’d heard that it was made to address the divisions caused by the controversial release of The Birth of a Nation, including the resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan. But it seems that I may have misunderstood DWG’s intentions.

Intolerance is supposedly about the scourge of intolerance throughout the ages – only the focus (if there is one) seems to be on closer analysis of intolerances perpetrated against the ideas and prejudices of one DW Griffith. The right to make a racist film without criticism, the right to follow a more puritanical religion, and so on. You may have a hard time actually picking these out of the immense scope of the thing, but as far as a moral core goes, I’m afraid it may be a rotten one.

Otherwise I’m left with two impressions. Firstly that the whole thing is visually absolutely stunning. The scenes in ancient Babylon in particular are some of the most ambitious I’ve seen in any era – and bearing in mind how everything needed to be constructed in real life, the achievement here is undeniable. Griffith also seems to have developed his editing style a fair amount in the year between productions, and some sections were clearly influential. That is, if you can find them. Because this is a long, long film, and what plot there is is impossible to follow.

A lot of this is due to the convoluted story of the film’s production. DWG started off shooting a film about a strike at a mill, in which the villains are not just the mill owners but also the moral puritans driving the strikers. After showing this to his friends in the industry he decided this was too slight to be the follow-up to the biggest film of all time and started shooting another three segments – one in ancient Babylon, one about Jesus’s crucifixion and one about the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Protestant Huguenots in France.

Intolerance is therefore four films, woven together over three and a half hours of screen time. Most of the characters (and there are a lot of these) are unnamed, and the connection between the stories is highly tenuous. I’m not sure if my attention span has been destroyed by mobile phones and having small children, but it was very difficult to follow one strand, let alone four. This also seems to have been the opinion of contemporary audiences, who did not flock to the cinema as they had previously. The film barely broke even, and DWG’s career never really recovered. In the last century, however, the film has had a critical renaissance – writers who do not want to say anything nice about BOAN have instead flocked to lavish praise on it. Armond White, for example, described it as “The Greatest Movie Ever Made” in the National Review, an opinion which is clearly incorrect. More recently parallels have been drawn between the concept of “intolerance” as demonstrated in the film and the debating tactics of the alt-right, where intolerance of racism is presented as a greater crime than racism itself.

My take is this: it’s another beautiful, awful film, only this time it’s more beautiful, and also really, really confusing.

This episode of the superb podcast You Must Remember This looks at the making of Intolerance.

 

1917 in Film

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The Immigrant

Oh Doctor!

The Dying Swan

Satan Triumphant

Thaïs

The Cure

Bucking Broadway

A Little Princess

The Torture of Silence (Mater Dolorosa)

The Woman God Forgot

His Wedding Night

Cleopatra

All Aboard

Fear

The Adventurer

Bestia (aka The Polish Dancer)

A Man There Was (Terje Vigen)

The Butcher Boy

Wild and Woolly

Teddy at the Throttle

The Poor Little Rich Girl

A Reckless Romeo

Straight Shooting

Coney Island

Der Magische Gürtel

Tom Sawyer

The Rough House

The Little American

1916 in Film

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Intolerance

The Floorwalker

Sherlock Holmes

Fatty and Mabel Adrift

The Rink

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Cenere

The Mystery of the Leaping Fish

Judex: L’ombre mystérieuse (The Mysterious Shadow), Episode 1

Farmer Alfalfa Sees New York

Joan The Woman

Snow White

Hell’s Hinges

East Is East

The Danger Girl

Behind the Screen

Civilization

One A.M.

The Battle of the Somme

Hoodoo Ann

The Count

The Curse of Quon Gwon

The Pawnshop

Where Are My Children?

The Return of Draw Egan

Police

 

Birth of A Nation

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Not only is there no defending The Birth of A Nation in 2019, it’s wildly offensive even for 1915. A film made to glorify the Klu Klux Klan by claiming that they saved the USA from (appalling racist caricatures of) unruly black people, it was picketed by the NAACP on release, but was enough of a hit to inspire the real KKK to return from semi-retirement to murder thousands of black people. It would be hard to imagine another film doing as much to harm humanity as a whole, and beyond any other considerations, this should clearly mark it as a bad film.

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Inconveniently it’s also a landmark in filmmaking history – not the first feature film, but the one which was big enough to get everyone else making them, and a spectacle so vast and varied that it wouldn’t be matched in scale for decades. Director D.W. Griffith was a leader in the field already, but the release of the film shot him into superstardom, and he took the sleepy Californian community of Hollywood with him.

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So I watched Birth of A Nation, all three hours and thirteen minutes of it, to find out if there is anything to salvage.

In terms of writing, no. The script is a hackneyed bunch of racist cliches muddled with sentimental war stories and bad political fantasy. In terms of acting, also no. Lilian Gish puts in some fairly decent work as ever, but the horrible blackface performers undo everything – the public in crowd scenes are no worse than most of the other actors. But in terms of cinematography, in the first half of the film at least, there are some moments of sublime beauty which this piece of trash does not deserve in any way. These don’t really come across in still images, but I’ll try.

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Part of it is awe at the scale of everything, but I can’t deny there was some real talent wasted in making this film.

If you want to judge this for yourself, the whole thing is available on Youtube.