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Intolerance: Love's Struggle Through the Ages
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by Jay Seaver

"Innovative, not intolerable."
4 stars

D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance", these days, is most often brought up as a defense for his having directed "The Birth of a Nation", and while it will always be linked with that movie - Griffith made it partially in reaction to the reputation he gained for "Birth", after all - it's an essential piece of movie history on its own. Few movies today can match the sort of ambition he showed 98 years ago, even if the act of inventing much of modern cinema language means there is still a bit of refinement to be done.

Four stories from different periods are interwoven, each an illustration of how prejudice and intolerance interferes with love and happiness. In the present, "The Dear One" (Mae Marsh) spends her days caring for her factory-worker father until the work of priggish reformers sends both her and The Boy (Robert Harron) to the city, where potential corruption, redemption, and tragedy await. In another place and time, Huguenot girl Brown Eyes (Margery Wilson) and Catholic Prosper Latour (Eugene Pallette) intend to marry, unaware that Catherine de Medicis (Josephine Crowell) is preparing a purge and that she has also caught the eye of a mercenary (Allan Sears). The ancient city of Babylon is the setting for a story about a feisty Mountain Girl (Constance Talmadge) who falls for Prince Belshazzar (Alfred Paget), unaware that the high priest of Bel (Tully Marshall), furious over the increased worship of the goddess Ishtar, intends to betray the city to an invading warlord. And in the time of Christ (Howard Gaye), the Pharisees do not just look down upon others, but expect others to look up to them.

Griffith's ambition with Intolerance was staggering for 1916 - the movie is king-sized, especially for the silent era, at roughly three hours (depending on which cut you see), and the idea of telling multiple stories in parallel, only related via theme, was all but unheard-of. Those themes themselves, meanwhile, were broad and impassioned, an earnest and heartfelt lecture on how prejudice have been harmful forces throughout human history. It might, arguably, be a bit of a stronger argument coming off of Birth of a Nation if there were any black characters of note in the film, but it's certainly difficult to argue with Griffith's intensity in making the argument. And he's not content for the film's components simple half-stories solely dedicated to making a point; he could probably have built two or three decent movies out of the various pieces without too much padding.

That scale doesn't come very close to being Intolerance's undoing, but Griffith does overreach a bit. The emphasis is very clearly on the twentieth-century and Babylonian stories, with the other two serving as reflections. Indeed, there's barely a story to the Biblical segments - what starts out focused on the Pharisees sort of becomes a way to use incidents from the Gospels to comment on The Dear One's tale, which itself takes a fairly long time to get to the point. The French story isn't quite so sparse, but it is secondary enough that it can be difficult to recall where it was going when Griffith returns there after some time away. It's not enough for the audience to get impatient while watching the movie, at least until the lights come up for an intermission when a viewer is perhaps ready for it to be winding up after a thrilling, climactic-seeming battle sequence. There's at least another hour of this?

Yes, there certainly is, but that's no hardship, in part because Griffith and company edit the heck out of the last act). The kind of cross-cutting between different locations and sets of characters that Griffith does here was almost (if not completely) unprecedented in 1916 - the next time you see an action movie jumping between two big operations happening simultaneously, remember that it has its roots in the Dear One and the Mountain Girl both frantically racing to prevent a calamity here - and he does it just about as well as anybody has in the century since. This is also a grand, opulently-produced film, most noticeably in the Babylonian scenes where the filmmakers seem to have built an entire ancient city, but the rest are nothing to sneeze at. And while Griffith is preaching about the need for love and tolerance, he does that in part by displaying the violence that their absence brings with sometimes shocking frankness, from battles in Babylon that are much bloodier than those of the typical silent to the horrific aftermath of the massacre of of the Huguenots. It's not all blood and decapitations, though; his skill is on display in not making the happy sensuality of the worshipers of Ishtar seem exploitative, how the factory owner's massive, empty office suggests wastefulness at the top while the workers suffer that remains current today, or how he casually presents a more human Jesus than is often the case without disrespect.

There also aren't a great many holes in his large cast. Constance Talmadge (credited as Georgia Pearce) is quite the firecracker as the Mountain Girl, committing totally to a woman whose tomboyishness never gets muted and whose flaws aren't much smoothed over. She'd be easy to overdo, but Talmadge keeps the audience's favor throughout. Mae Marsh is a different sort of leading lady in the twentieth century segments, exaggerating everything about the Dear One just enough to make her story seem grander, really selling how the events take a toll on her. Marsh has the best supporting cast of the picture, with Robert Harron as "The Boy", Miriam Cooper as "The Friendless One", and Walter Long as "The Musketeer of the Slums" (with those characters having as great a collection of silent movie non-names as you will ever see). The French story may be somewhat forgettable, but Josephine Crowell's Catherine de Medicis captures the mannerisms, arrogance, and fear of the religious bigot as well as anybody ever has, even without her voice being part of the occasion. Lillian Gish also shows up in a recurring cameo that adds a bit of emphasis but doesn't actually allow her to do anything interesting.

Like a lot of works that innovate, "Intolerance" fades a bit now that the things that were done here first have become relatively common. The flip side is that as an early work, it can just go for things in a way that later movies can't - the Pharisees thanking God for making them better than everyone else is perfect in how direct and on-the-nose it is. So while there are things Griffith does in this movie that would certainly be refined later, it's still got the vital energy of innovation, and that makes it highly watchable, even almost a century later.

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originally posted: 07/18/14 05:42:36
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User Comments

11/25/15 mr.mike A must for film buffs 4 stars
1/28/08 proper amateur film critic Stunning pieceof filmmaking, with a breathtaking set 5 stars
12/27/04 mjoc Hard to watch now, but a major piece of film history. 4 stars
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Directed by
  D.W. Griffith

Written by
  D.W. Griffith

  Mae Marsh
  Robert Harron
  F.A. Turner
  Sam De Grasse
  Vera Lewis
  Mary Alden

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