I knew I had to watch Intolerance, a classic movie in its own right, in conjunction with The Birth of a Nation because it is invariably described as director D. W. Griffith’s defensive response to the fierce criticism directed at his earlier film.
Indeed, its title strongly suggests an attempt to curry favor with socially powerful “racism” accusers. So my expectations were not high.
There are four major versions of Intolerance; I watched Kino International’s (2002). Taken from better 35 mm prints, it was transferred at a slower frame rate, resulting in a running time of 3 hours and 18 minutes.
Famous for its massive, lavish, sets (the outdoor set for the Babylon sequences was the largest ever built up to that time) and thousands of extras (16,000 in one scene) Intolerance is a long, complex film dramatizing examples of intolerance from ancient times to the present.
Four distinct stories from different epochs are interwoven—ancient Babylon, the crucifixion of Christ, the 16th century St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of Protestant Huguenots by French Catholics, and a contemporary American tale of a young couple victimized by poverty, self-righteous social reformers, and an inflexible legal system.
There are over 50 transitions between segments as Griffith cuts back and forth among the stories. The symbolic bridging device is a recurring cameo shot of Lillian Gish representing Eternal Motherhood rocking a cradle, accompanied by an intertitle paraphrasing lines from Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”:
“Endlessly rocks the cradle, uniter of here and hereafter. Chanter of sorrows and joys.”
Unlike Birth, which was Hollywood’s biggest moneymaker before 1939’s Gone With the Wind, Intolerance was a box office flop. Audiences found the multiple plots confusing. Nevertheless, the movie influenced later filmmakers and is today considered a masterpiece of silent cinema.
Though the structure of the film is a bit unwieldy, each of the four unrelated (save thematically) stories are chronologically linear, so the overall effect is clear.
Structural disproportion is more noticeable. The Babylonian and modern segments are the largest by far, while the St. Bartholomew’s Day and New Testament stories are comparatively underdeveloped.
Unsurprisingly, the segment about Jesus is the shortest, as well as the most muted and circumspect of the four. Still, it is there.
Silent movie actress Mae Marsh, who had big roles in Birth and Intolerance, emoted with her entire body in both films. She repeatedly hopped up and down or stamped her feet in ways intended to be girlish and endearing, but that were merely irksome. Constance Talmadge emulated Marsh, albeit with her own unique variations.
Intolerance does not look like the mea culpa it is usually implied to be, despite an introductory intertitle proclaiming that each of the four stories demonstrate “how hatred and intolerance [note the lingo—how long have those clichés been around?], through all the ages, have battled against love and charity.”
The long Babylonian segment isn’t so much about intolerance as treachery and betrayal. Set in 539 BC, it portrays the conquest of Prince Belshazzar’s Babylon by Cyrus the Great of Persia. The city’s fall is brought about by a fifth column (“the great conspiracy”) within the city led by a priest of the Babylonian god Bel-Marduk.
For a plausible suggestion unrelated to the movie that the fifth column depicted by Griffith as indigenous could have been Jewish, see “Did Fifth Columnists Help Cyrus Conquer Babylon?” Instauration (August 1994), p. 14.
Belshazzar, though described as an “apostle of tolerance and religious freedom,” comes across as a typical Oriental potentate.
Lavish scenes of luxury and sexual decadence abound. Griffith is not condemnatory. On the contrary, he seems to relish them! (An earlier Griffith film, Judith of Bethulia, contained an orgy scene.) The dissolute Babylonians are the heroes, the martial Cyrus the bad guy.
As the Persians force their way into Belshazzar’s inner sanctum, the Prince permits his favorite harem slave to slay several of his other women on the theory that they have a duty to die with their master. Before the Persians can seize him, Belshazzar commits ritual suicide with a knife.
The contemporary sequence in Intolerance takes particular aim at Puritanical female WASP reformers. (“When women cease to attract men, they often turn to Reform as a second choice.”) Like the contemporary Left, Jews, academics, and government, the “uplifters” insist, “We must have laws to make people good.” Griffith equates such people with Pharisees.
On balance, the director appears not to be a fan of war, prisons, or child and family services. Contrariwise, he is anti-Prohibition and (if I may say so) “pro”-prostitution.
Given the concerted attacks upon Griffith as a “racist,” the most interesting segment of Intolerance from an ideological (though not artistic or narrative) perspective is the Christian one, even though it is the shortest, least obtrusive, and most cautious of them all.
It briefly portrays the Passion. And Jesus is called “the Man of Men, the greatest enemy of intolerance.” Both big no-nos, then and now.
In addition, it is the Pharisees who embody intolerance in this story. One is played by Austrian-born Jew Erich von Stroheim, who was an assistant director on Intolerance and later became a famous filmmaker in his own right.
The Pharisees wear head-tefillin (phylacteries, small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah) on their foreheads, strongly hinting at Griffith’s familiarity with Orthodox Jews from his many years in New York City and Hollywood.
Swaying, one Jew (Griffith calls the Pharisees “hypocrites”) mouths, “Oh Lord, thank thee that I am better than other men.”
Intolerance closes with an idealistic vision.
In the clouds above a modern battlefield, white robed, pacifist angels appear. Battling soldiers look heavenward and drop their rifles. An open vehicle with passengers waving from its sides sails through the clouds.
Brilliant light from above descends toward the exterior of a prison. The prison walls dissolve into open countryside with a flowery field in the foreground and mountains in the background. Prisoners are freed.
Battlefield soldiers lift their arms to the sky as clouds with angels descend toward them.
People dance in a grassy field. Two children sit on an unused cannon now sprouting flowers.
A little boy and girl play in the foreground. The boy puts flowers in the girl’s hair, she blows him a kiss, and they hug. A brilliant white cross appears in the sky.
The intertitles read:
“When cannon and prison bars wrought in the fires of intolerance [disappear]—
“And perfect love shall bring peace forevermore.
“Instead of prison walls – Bloom flowery fields.”
Maudlin sentimentalism such as this crops up repeatedly in Griffith’s films. It is the conventional, mindless utopianism of liberal elites—outlawry of war, universal democracy, brotherhood, peace on earth, united nations, world federalism, egalitarianism, feminism.
Lachrymose sentimentality that, unfortunately, is invariably combined in real-world practice with the utmost cruelty.
Intolerance was particularly influential in Russia, where dictator Vladimir Lenin had it imported in 1919. It was studied closely by film students and directors, including Jewish Communist moviemaker Serge Eisenstein.