We have another decade to go before the United States turns 250 – and sixty years total before the tercentennial in 2076 – but now, before 2016 comes to an end, we can at last – and certainly not least! – celebrate the 100th Anniversary of one of the earliest epics (and earliest motion pictures overall) that helped to cement the cinema’s reputation as a universally transformative spiritual force: D.W. Griffith’s monumental four-part through-the-ages masterpiece Intolerance (1916).
It’s hard to believe that as we continue moving forward into a millennium still in its infancy, the earliest silent films from world cinema are already starting to turn 100. I was only 16 going on 17 when George Melies’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) turned 100, and was happy when a personal favorite of mine, Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914) – the top-ranking monument of the Golden Age of Italian Cinema, and influential enough that some of its techniques and visuals were borrowed for Intolerance – became a centennial film in 2014, when I was 28 going on 29 (at that point an extra in Masterminds while it was being shot in Asheville). You can only imagine the giddy feeling I will have when the films in the following each hit their centennial marks: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 2019; Der Golem and the John Barrymore version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 2020; Dr. Mabuse the Gambler and Nosferatu in 2022; Master of the House and The Phantom Carriage in 2024; Battleship Potemkin, The Lost World and The Phantom of the Opera in 2025; Metropolis and the first Academy Award Winner for Best Picture, Wings in 2027; and The Passion of Joan of Arc in 2028. There are too just many to name, even without mentioning the early silent versions of The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, The King of Kings, The Last Days of Pompeii, and other films that would be remade during the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. Some tragically have been lost (or are hopefully only missing), like the Theda Bara version of Cleopatra (1917), or the Lon Chaney vampire caper London After Midnight (1927), the latter’s presence surviving so far only in the film’s screenplay and a few stills of the Man of a Thousand Faces in full costume.
One film which I’m grateful was not lost is Intolerance, which was actor-turned-filmmaker David Wark Griffith’s most ambitious attempt to take the still relatively young medium of the motion picture to its maximum potential. After making a series of short films – and starting United Artists with fellow contemporaries including Mary Pickford – Griffith had entered the feature film realm with Judith of Bethulia (1914), and the pre-Gone With The Wind Civil War and Reconstruction epic The Birth of a Nation (1915), the last of which was adapted from Thomas Dixon Jr.’s novel and play of the same title, as well as his The Leopard’s Spots. These films displayed American cinema in its early phases of evolution, with advanced cinematography, editing and special effects techniques borrowed from Italian cinema. But while Nation, in particular, was the most commercially successful of his career (it made $4.8 million, more than $600 million when adjusted for inflation), it was also – and probably still remains – the most racist film ever made, particularly in its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan as a force of justice befitting the best American values and African-Americans depicted as a threat to society. It was slammed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) during its early years, and today it’s one that even I am afraid to add to my own film collection (seeing it once, then braving a second viewing, was enough – I can only recommend it for academic viewing purposes, as it’s far more dangerous to pretend that this film doesn’t exist than to actually watch it).
It would make sense that Griffith (who was actually the son of a Confederate Army colonel, and who actually went far to play Dixon in Nation) would have to redeem himself with a follow-up project, and one which would eventually become far more ambitious in theme, scope and budget than Nation ever was. He went on record claiming in interviews that the reason he chose to film Intolerance was partly in response to those who were intolerant of Nation. But whatever the politics, Intolerance would showcase how Griffith would enhance the medium of cinema, even if the message of the film didn’t reach the audience. Many of the actors and crew who made Nation possible – including Lillian Gish and Miriam Cooper – collaborated once again with Griffith, who financed the film himself using the $2 million-plus percentage he personally earned from Nation’s vast returns. And if the budget wasn’t high enough to stagger the masses, the film that came out would run a then-unheard-of thirteen reels (three hours in length)! Also of note was that several emerging film legends were featured in cameo appearances or bit roles in this film alone, a number of whom worked in the art department. Some of them would become directors in their own right like King Vidor, Frank Borzage, Tod Browning, and Erich von Stroheim!
Often referred to as “A Sun Play of the Ages”, Griffith’s film – one of the earliest “art” epics – is divided into four interwoven parts taking place across history from the ancient world to modern times. According to its prologue, “each story shows how hatred and intolerance, through all the ages, have battled against love and charity.” The four parts are as follows: a segment set in 539 B.C.E. Babylon during the political and religious conflict of Prince Belshazzar and the Persian Cyrus the Great, which eventually results in the fall of the great city; a story set in Judaea at the time of Jesus of Nazareth and including his Crucifixion; a fragment set in Renaissance-period France showing the religious conflict between the Huguenots and the Catholics leading to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre; and a modern tale in 1914 involving the aftermath of a struggle between unrelenting capitalists and striking workers and how it affects a couple trying to start a family together in a world of poverty and crime. These segments are held together by the recurring image of The Eternal Motherhood (Lillian Gish) rocking a cradle with baby, but, to quote author and University of Arizona scholar Jon Solomon from his book The Ancient World in the Cinema, the entire plot “twists and turns like the labyrinth in which Theseus met the Minotaur – a path can be found, but not a direct one and not on the first try.” In other words, it’s a maze of both indelible sights and probing conscience, one that is at times incomprehensible and only makes sense if one studies without blinking. The connection between all its parts, and how they fulfill Griffith’s aim to create both a morality fable and a celluloid landmark, is initially obscure.
Whatever its flaws – some which are historical, some which may result from contemporary and past viewers’ degree of tolerance to the filmmaker’s idiosyncratic approach – Griffith certainly could not be blamed for his ambition in using every historical and artistic source in existence to make this behemoth of an epic come to life. Taking inspiration from several paintings – the Babylon segment alone drew its basis from Georges Rochegrosse’s Fall of Babylon (1891), John Martin’s Belshazzar’s Feast (1821) and Edwin Long’s Babylonian Marriage Market (1875), as well as historian James Henry Breasted’s then-published Ancient Times and even Greek historian Herodotus’ writings – and faithfully integrating them into the themes and styles of his production, Griffith worked tightly with his crew and set decorator Frank Wortman to turn history into cinematic legend.
Highly admirable are the lengths to which Griffith and Wortman went to integrate history and architectural art into the scenes – archaeology was still a young science being put into practice, as was the art of blending historic authenticity into any film’s plot and visuals, let alone those of Intolerance. For the first time in North America – and early Hollywood – authentic replicas of the temples, streets and interiors of Babylon, Judaea and Paris were constructed, with costumes to match and with thousands of extras featured on display. For the lavish Babylon segment alone, the cost reached $12,000 per shooting day. The walls and temples of Babylon were erected, covered with plaster reliefs and featuring statues duplicating the mixture of Sumerian, Assyrian, Persian and Babylonian arts that featured in the original city. The staircase and winged bull-headed statues of Persepolis, the elephantid columns (which were not only previously featured in the influential Cabiria but also came from ancient India), the bas-reliefs of the eagle-headed gods and the Tree of Life from Assyria, the murals and mosaics – all of it for just one portion of this unprecedented film event. And if the lavish spectacle wasn’t enough, Griffith used subtle historical text notes in the scene and dialogue cards to explain the legitimacy of historical customs – including Jesus’s wine-drinking as an accepted tradition in Judea – to an audience that was unfamiliar, or may have had certain qualms, with the accuracy and acceptability of said customs being depicted on film.
Apart from its display of past worlds, Intolerance was also a technological breakthrough, going beyond The Birth of a Nation in the development of cinematographic and editing techniques. Billy Bitzer captured, with awesome compositions and steady dolly-tracking (another element borrowed from Cabiria, as that film’s director Pastrone had actually patented the moving dolly himself), the interiors and exteriors of each story setting. The editing, done by James and Rose Smith and Griffith himself, gradually builds from standard cutting of flat shots, to close-ups and fade-outs, and finally to a frenetically-cut sequence between all four segments at the film’s climax, in which Babylon falls, Christ is crucified, a Huguenot family meets its tragic end in the Massacre by the Catholics, and an unjust hanging of a wrongfully-convicted man is stopped just in time.
Without a doubt, Intolerance will always remain best known for its Babylon sequences – the images for that segment stand alone with or without the other intercut plotlines. Griffith was immensely pleased by the result of the finished architecture construction for the Babylon story that he ended up shortening the Massacre and Passion sequences (but not the Modern story) to allow for the expansion of the Babylon segment. While this may have resulted in Intolerance being less comprehensive, due to the barely-developed plots of the Massacre and Passion, it does do justice to the film following the silent cinema’s approach not only as a storytelling medium, but a visual one too, taking it beyond the limits of literature and theatre to create a transcendental experience. It also possibly has the most captivating love story of all the segments: that of the Mountain Girl (Constance Talmadge) who falls for her king Belshazzar (Alfred Paget) rather than for the Rhapsode (Elmer Clifton) who is smitten with her; fights for the king, and finally, dies in a tragic vain attempt to rush and protect both the king she loves and her kingdom. It’s a standout performance that presents a more progressive feminist side in an ancient, barbaric setting, and one which still remarkably holds up today despite the usual limitations of pantomime performance in silent-era filmmaking.
Some liberties had to be taken with history of course. Griffith followed history correctly in showing how Babylon was finally breached, using Herodotus’s writings and the Nabu-naid tablets: Belshazzar’s devout polytheistic rule, which was responsible for several factors including oppression of the peasantry, led to the monotheistic priests of the god Marduk, in rebellion, exposing to Cyrus and the Persians the city’s weakness, a gap where the walls meet the Euphrates River, thereby allowing Cyrus to take the city without even breaching the walls. But that didn’t stop Griffith from inserting a massive battle scene and orgy into the Babylon segment, and not just for the sake of spectacle. While the orgy is impressive for its ornate dances and feast – not to mention the visual style made possible by the dolly shots and editing – the battle alone is one of cinema’s greatest mid-reel climaxes. Even by today’s action film standards, it never fails to captivate the average viewer’s attention. As the Persian battering rams and hundred-foot-tall siege towers (pulled by real elephants!) approach the city, ringlet-bearded Babylonians in armor cast stones with slings and catapults, impale the invading Persians pouring onto the wall-tops from the towers by spears and arrows, and pour boiling oil onto the Persian infantry below. One siege tower falls towards the camera, the battle continues past the following night into the next day, and even a warrior’s decapitation occurs (the first beheading in Hollywood history!) before Babylon celebrates its short-lived victory preceding the orgy and fall. And all while the extras were afraid that the rickety surfaces of the set would collapse underneath them and cause injury or death.
Sadly, death would come unjustly to Intolerance as it did to Belshazzar, the Mountain Girl, Christ and the Huguenots. Griffith’s masterwork was released just as the United States entered World War I; its sermon of love, peace, understanding and tolerance was out of place with the people and times. It didn’t help that the audiences who attended the film during its initial premiere and release were left immensely puzzled and/or displeased by the revolutionary, multi-segment, intercutting storytelling style that Griffith had used. While it was brilliant filmmaking, it didn’t come across as the kind of entertainment contemporary silent-film audiences were used to, much as Orson Welles’ just-as-revolutionary Citizen Kane would also fail to find an audience 25 years later. For all the effort that Griffith and his team had put into Intolerance to surpass The Birth of a Nation, it lost all of the fortune Griffith had made from that film. Even afterwards, when Griffith cut the Babylon and Modern story segments separately from the original story to make two separate films, in 1919 – The Fall of Babylon (named after one of the paintings that inspired the Babylon scenes) and The Mother and the Law – the damage had already been done. None of Griffith’s films afterwards recaptured his previous successes or the ultimate artistry of Intolerance. A movement established to make Griffith’s Babylon sets a permanent national landmark failed, and they were cleared away. It was the beginning of the end of Griffith’s reign as one of Hollywood’s earliest big-screen titans.
But, as fate would have it, history and Hollywood would prove kind to Griffith’s Intolerance. One of Griffith’s friends and disciples, “Master of the Epic” Cecil B. DeMille, would adapt the ancient themes of Intolerance for his Biblical epics of the silent eras – going so far as to make his 1923 version of The Ten Commandments juxtapose a modern story with that of Exodus – and continuing the tradition with later talkie epics such as the Pre-Code The Sign of the Cross (1932); Samson and Delilah (1949), which established the Biblical epic as a commercially viable genre after World War II; and his final film, the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston as Moses. The editing and cinematographic styles would be borrowed by Browning, von Stroheim, Vidor, and other crew members who worked on the film in their later efforts as directors, and even European and Soviet filmmakers like Fritz Lang and Sergei Eisenstein would follow up on Griffith’s techniques and influence, as would Welles in Citizen Kane. Its status as an “art” epic would be further refined by the “thinking man’s epics” of David Lean, including The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Doctor Zhivago (1965), and those of Stanley Kubrick, namely Spartacus (1960), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Barry Lyndon (1975).
More recently, in the 1980’s, the film in its original form received a huge resurgence in popularity from more learned and appreciative cinephiles, filmmakers, critics and historians, who sought to preserve the film and its legacy, and make it known to a whole new generation of filmgoers. It was shown out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 1982, was referenced in the nightclub of Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983), and was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress in its National Film Registry seven years later. The delayed gratification and accolades for this film continued into the first two decades of the new millennium. In 2001, a replica of the archway and elephantid columns from the film’s Babylon scenes was constructed on Hollywood and Highland as an important part of its shopping center. Finally, in 2007, the American Film Institute, in updating its list of the Top 100 Films of All Time, inducted Intolerance as #49, just below Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and above Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), displacing The Birth of a Nation from the list in the process. Some of the most audacious filmmakers working today continue to employ the standards set forth by Griffith and Intolerance, whether it happens to be in terms of its scale or intercutting multi-segment storytelling technique. Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Peter Jackson and James Cameron, with their epics, have gone out of their way to surpass the styles and scales made possible by Griffith more than half a century ago, while paying tribute to his accomplishments. Other, far more ambitious and individualistic filmmakers like P.T. Anderson (Magnolia, 1999), Darren Aronofsky (The Fountain, 2006), and Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis (Cloud Atlas, 2012), in terms of the intercut multi-story angle, owe a huge debt of gratitude to Griffith’s magnum opus.
And for that matter, so do I. In composing this essay, my tribute to D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance on its 100th Anniversary as an American Centennial film, I hope that many like me in the years to follow will realize, even after the century of cinema that followed its release, the immortal power of this film not only as the crowning achievement of its filmmaker, and not only as one of the quintessential landmarks of American cinema and culture, but all world cinema and culture in general. It is a reminder of how far the motion picture has come and how far it can still go. It is itself a martyr for everything that true cinema stands for: truth, compassion, humanity, love, wisdom, belief, and the never-ending journey to seek all those things and more which are greater than ourselves, revealing the power to bounce back with more emotional, spiritual and socially conscious resonance every time it is watched. Even if you don’t accept Griffith’s message or are just not a fan of the filmmaker, even if you find it hard to watch this film after all the films you’ve seen that followed in its wake, and even if you are not one who understands how certain examples of cinema can transform and transcend the medium, the fact is, you can’t deny that Intolerance, alone among the filmmaker’s works, is a force of nature all its own. Don’t miss it the next time it comes back to the big screen. I, for one, will be eagerly waiting for that moment to arrive…