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.