D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation resonates today as much for its appalling racism as its astonishing technical breakthroughs. Griffith's revolutionary editing and scope established the budding art form of cinema as a legitimate force in the artistic world, one that could entertain audiences past the length of comedy two-reelers and show something more audacious than slapstick and bite-sized melodramas; his depiction of the Civil War remain possibly the most realistic and inspiring war scenes in movie history. Sadly, the film's glorification of the Ku Klux Klan and the assertion that white must band together to protect themselves from the savage blacks.
Griffith reportedly had no idea what a terrible message his movie sent, and even felt regret for the manner in which it was triumphed as a confirmation of anti-black sentiment. (While it's good he felt regret, one has to marvel that not even a full century ago, someone could fail to see the offensiveness of some of The Birth of a Nation.) As a mea culpa, he took a planned film -- a poor woman separated from her husband when he finds himself a scapegoat of ruthless employers who falsely accuse him of murder so they can win support to beat down striking workers an -- and tacked on three new, entirely different stories to craft an epic concerning the evil of intolerance and its effect on cultures throughout world history.
If The Birth of a Nation collected every budding cinematic technique into one innovative whole, Intolerance is where Griffith got downright inventive. The four stories, each with their own color tint, are as follows:
1. The Modern Story: the aforementioned story about the woman struggling amidst a restless California.
2. The French Renaissance: Years before Henry de Navarre assumed the throne as Henry IV and passed the Edict of Nantes, the reigning Catholics targeted the Huguenots (French Protestants), culminating in the horrific St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre.
3. The Judean Story: As Jesus walks through Judea sermonizing, he attracts the vitriol and intolerance of the Pharisees, who ultimately coerce the Romans into crucifying him.
4. The Babylonian Period: Mountain Girl (Constance Talmadge) attempts in vain to save the peaceful Prince Belshazzar's throne as treacherous priests betray him to King Cyrus of Persia for not establishing their religion as the only legal one.
Each of these stories comes with its own set of costumes, sets and actors (though some actors are re-used). I know that's obvious, but Griffith made this in 1916. The Birth of a Nation wasn't the first feature-length picture ever made, and some of its innovative techniques had already been used by Raoul Walsh (who actually played John Wilkes Booth in the film and served as an assistant director), but it was still a more expansive than anything seen at the time. Intolerance makes it look like an indie film; made for an unheard-of $2 million, the film boasts jaw-dropping pieces in the Babylonian segment that practically laid the groundwork for every swords-and-sandals epic made since.
This segment, the longest of the four, lets you know you're watching groundbreaking cinema in all of its scenes. Extras ride real elephants, while the actors walk through lavish court sets. Mountain Girl moves through "outdoor" sets even larger, sets that overflow with action when the Persians finally arrive to tear apart the city. Directors can't seem to keep track of large-scale action scenes today; how Griffith corralled actual elephants and thousands of extras into staging fights bends the mind.
In contrast, the Modern Story lacks the physical scope of the Babylonian segment but makes up for it with an emotional effect. The unnamed woman, unfortunately a reflection of the sexist views of the day, is frail and an invalid without her husband. She gives birth to her husband's child while he languishes in prison, but a group of reformers, who view her as nothing more than the wife of a convict, come to her home without permission, accuse her of alcoholism and negligence and take her child. Her story takes some fascinating twists and turns, such as turning to the "Musketeer of the Slums" for help, only for her paroled husband to find her in the nick of time before the slimy man takes advantage of her, and then for the Musketeer's mistress to kill the man, thus leaving the husband implicated in yet another murder.
Sadly, the other two segments, likely because of funding issues, receive far less development. While there are some action scenes in the French story, it almost looks like an episode of Blackadder: men and women sitting around in costumes arguing over things. Jesus' story plays like a passion play on fast-forward; the shortest of all the segments, it never gets off the ground, which is a shame as it is obviously the story that would most appeal to the Southern Christians who were still coming up with excuses to justify their racism. There are also bizarre linking shots of a woman (Griffith favorite Lillian Gish) monotonously rocking a cradle. Presumably, this image represents a sort of eternal motherhood, of rebirth in the face of so much on-screen death and war, but these shots are too obtuse when played amidst the straightforward segments. Also, Griffith still relies far too heavily on intertitles to get the message across (often literally stated) when his images could have easily done the job.
Nevertheless, both of the weaker segments pay off when the stories begin to rapidly build and converge into one of the most thrilling endings in film history. The slaughter of the Huguenots is terrifying, while the fall of Babylon displays the folly of blind hedonism. Griffith's intertitles are too preachy, but the images of angels, pure beings of love, appearing over battlefields and inspiring calm and joy in warring soldiers is beautiful, and the transition of the prisons and battlefields of the world into tranquil pastures is unbelievably poignant. The only ending to a silent film I can think of more moving is City Lights'.
Intolerance has its flaws -- it's unfair to single it out for being dated, but the over-reliance on title cards and the underdevelopment of two of the four segments stand out even when you meet it halfway -- but it remains a marvel of silent filmmaking. Not only does it contain all of the techniques that made The Birth of a Nation so revolutionary, it increases the scale and introduces the concept of non-linear storytelling. The constant criss-crossing of the four stories and even that unnecessary linking image of the rocking mother are the work of a true artist, not someone just looking to make a quick buck off of uneducated fools who went to the movies because they were shinier than plays.
Tellingly, the film flopped upon its release, bankrupting a studio in the process (of course, this was in the days when there were more than just a handful of megastudios), perhaps because its ahead-of-its-time style confused filmgoers, or maybe the audience who'd flocked to The Birth of a Nation to have their views validated now felt as though they were being admonished for having those views. Whatever the case, we can now look back on Intolerance as the superior film, one marked by the weaknesses that always plagued Griffith's films but also filled with a creativity unmatched until Jean Renoir and, later, Orson Welles came to prominence nearly 30 years later.