D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance
The New York Film Forum this afternoon premiered a restored wide-screen version of the embarrassingly pretentious Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages, a silent film directed and produced (and plotted out) by D.W. Griffith and released in 1916.
There are two immediate reactions a viewer will have to this experience. First and foremost, complete exhaustion. With intermission, the experience is over three hours long. And the score by Carl Davis (composed in 1989) makes the experience even more exhausting. The music is not the blaring, brain-draining, unsubtle attempt at manipulation that Hans Zimmer is now noted for. But it relies on a mishmash of quotations, phrases and parodies of Wagner and late German romantics (including Mahler) together with an original (I think) theme that is frankly too thin for the extended use that is made of it. And yet the movie would probably be unwatchable without some sort of score.
The second reaction is that the film pretty much summarizes every generalization we have ever thought about film as a form of art or entertainment. Let’s get to particulars about this film first.
Of course, unless your interest in film history is more than casual (in other words greater than my own), you are likely to know D.W. Griffith mainly (or entirely) from his vile Birth of a Nation, released in 1915. Part of the profit made from that KKK encomium was used (after the legal fees to fight the attempts to ban it) to produce Intolerance. Contrary to the myth that surrounded this largely forgotten film, that it was Griffith’s apology or at least corrective for the “poor judgment” shown in the second half of Birth of a Nation, in fact Intolerance seems to be quite obviously an indictment of those who criticized Griffith’s earlier film. This is where the title and the not-so-subtle moralizing comes into play. Griffith would like you to believe that the world’s evils throughout history stem from a small group of people who arrogate to themselves the right to judge other people, who left to their own devising would not only mind their own business but have a meaningful and socially useful life otherwise (or even produce great art of historical analysis). So it was the critics of the ahistorical and racist film who were the problem.
One would probably assume that conveying this thesis convincingly would be a difficult feat to pull off, and of course he did not pull it off. The wonder is that he thought he could. I suspect that Griffith, himself the son of a confederate colonel who grew up in Kentucky (from the age of 10 when his father died in poverty), was steeped in Lost Cause mythology. He was born in 1875, right around the time that tenets which combined self-pity and a conspiratorial world view were beginning to take on their “classical” form. (The general method behind this thinking still form the backbone of Southern right-wing folk beliefs.) Anyone who saw how a people could put a noble aspect on a treasonous slave-owners’ rebellion might think that the task of vilifying the critics of Birth of a Nation was a walk in the park. So how does he attempt it?
First he doesn’t tell a story, he attempts to tell The Story of Mankind, by relating four episodes in human history with supposedly the same moral arch (tragedies caused, or at least attempted, by self-righteous Reformers who turn out ot be bald-faced hypocrites). One story (the only one that makes much sense) takes place in modern times and involves a woman called in the film The Dear One (played by Mae Marsh). The Dear One is such an infantilized bundle of feminine innocence and love that she can hardly contain herself and is busting out, with rollicking arm gestures and leg kicks, just out of pure happiness, despite the fact that she keeps house for her ancient father, who is a poor mill worker employed by a heartless tyrant. That would be tragic enough, but The Dear One must bear a lot more than that. Indeed her innocent goodness is to be the target of a group of women who preach Reform, but in fact are motivated by nothing other than the desire to crush the happiness of the destitute, who would be happy enough but for their interference. One title card makes this clear by pointing out that once women lose the ability to attract men they turn to Reform as a source of meaning. (I wonder if D.W. really believed that his father’s precious Slavocracy was brought down by a group of conspiracy-minded Northern spinsters.)
A second story tells how the head of the Catholic faction, Catherine de Médici (played by Josephine Crowell), persuades her husband to order the killing of all Huguenots in Paris. There is not much effort to plumb the psychology of Ms. de Médici, but she is homely enough that you can infer that she is motivated by the same desire for Reform as the crusaders of modern times.
The third narrative, and this is one that makes almost no sense, relates how the noble King Belshazzar (played by Alfred Paget) was betrayed by the High Priest of “Bel-Marduk” or “Bel” for short (played by Tully Marshal), and his kingdom was handed over to the Persians.
And the fourth story, of course, involves Jesus. How could we show intolerance without the story of how Jesus was mistreated by the Pharisees? (The Sadducees were left out for some reason.) Now in this one respect there may be a tip of the hat to the unpleasant reaction to Birth of a Nation: a title card points out that not all Pharisees were hypocrites, but a couple of bad apples gave the whole lot a bad name. (Perhaps the KKK went overboard on the Jew business?) In this story Jesus was played by Howard Gaye, who also played Cardinal de Lorraine in the French episodes. I take it that the doubling up owed to the lack of qualified silent stars rather than some subtle subtext about how Jesus and Cardinal de Lorraine (who may have ordered the assassination of the Protestant Admiral de Coligny) shared something or other.
The three “historical” stories have no real character development or even explication. The stories seemed aimed at an audience who had attended Sunday School classes long ago, ones that also superficially covered the Babylonian exile and Foxes Book of Martyrs. Vague concepts are all that are needed. In fact, knowing much about any of the characters would tend to make you refuse to suspend disbelief, which is eminently required to make it through the three hours.
The modern story is a melodrama of the type that was popular on stages at the time. It is implausible, involves unbelievable characters, but attempts to substitute for these failings exaggerated dramatic irony and races against time. in fact, given the race against the train, which provides one of the simultaneous climaxes, it reminded me of Elmer E. Vance’s highly successful stage play of the 1890s, The Limited Mail, which packed them in across the country, mainly for its exciting train chase scene (with train cars on stage!). But let’s not get caught up in any of these stories because the plots will only give you a headache. Suffice it to say, in all of them there are innocent, loving, childish women who are crushed by intolerance. Except in the Jesus story, which has a paucity of innocent women unless the woman taken in adultery is considered innocent. Some men are Christ-like (although it still is difficult to see Belshazzar in a Christ-like pose—he does end up dead, however). And there is lots and lots of violence.
The failure of the plot(s) is a feature that seems common in overblown spectaculars that would be produced over the next century. And if spectacle covers plot deficiencies (which appears to be an unshaken belief among film producers) then this movie comes through. No expense was spared in producing sets. The Babylon set is so lavishly designed that the title cards actually boast about their construction. The faux-sculptors, cast of hundred and exotic (and scanty) costumes probably were designed to take one’s mind off the fact that no one is given a reason to care about whether the absolute ruler who favors Ishtar ought to beat the absolute ruler who favored Bel-Marduk. But even this trick fails Griffith when a fire-breathing mechanical device is unleashed on the Persians. The contraption, when shooting flames, bears an uncanny resemblance to Japanese monster movie beasts.
None of this is to say that the movie did not anticipate a surprising number of clichés that later movies would adopt. Let me simply mention a few:
- The look, expressions and carriage of Jesus would be repeated endlessly.
- A tracking shot of the Persians in full gallop resembled countless similar scenes with Indians or the cavalry.
- Dancing on the stairway to the Great Hall of Babylon was shot just as a modern chorus number would be.
- The speeding trains shots could have been done by Hitchcock.
- The workers going to the mill looked much like the miners going to work in How Green Was My Valley.
- And of course lavish ancient spectacles and Jesus would become the subjects of countless Hollywood movies (sometimes together).
In fact the chief (or only) enjoyment of sitting through this spectacle is to try to imagine which later directors stole what from this movie. But this is not enough for my taste. Even expertly framed shots (and there are many) become tiresome when they are not, as they are not here, employed for some other purpose than simply to display moving pictures. And what finally makes the three-hour exercise seem puerile is the ending, which has no logical connection with what went before, except that it appears to argue that we all adopt the mindless, enthusiastic “innocence” of the unassuming and unaspiring female “heroes.” And even if you are willing to put up with a non-sequitur happy ending just to put the experience behind you, ask yourself, What happened to the baby?
For film history enthusiasts, I suppose watching this film is much like fans of Greek drama studying the fragments of lyric verse of the previous century. It’s not done for its own sake, only to throw light on other things. Intolerancehowever, does not make a case for according films the status of major art. If anything it reminds you how projects that depend on collaboration tend to be the least successful means of expression with long-term importance. Perhaps films really cannot have long-lasting ability to engage an audience. That is certainly true of Intolerance, which is a work that is unlikely to engender repeat viewings for enjoyment or edification or, really, anything else.