I’ve been on a serious silent movie kick this past week. There is something addictive about silent movies. According to author Scott Eyman, people watch silent films differently than talkies, with silent films putting our minds into something that resembles a hypnotic state. But whatever the cause, when I watch a silent film, I only want to watch other silent movies. The idea of someone actually speaking feels crass.
Often spoken of as one of the most highly influential, important and impressive silent films, D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance has been on my radar for some time and last week, with some trepidation, I finally saw it. My reaction was mixed, but my overwhelming impression was of Griffith’s colossal ambition. His theme is intolerance – which he never lets you forget for one moment – and he weaves together four separate stories in four separate historical times to illustrate his point.
I’m not sure he entirely succeeds, but it’s not from aiming too low. I don’t know if anyone could have done better. He practically out-DeMilles DeMille.
The four stories are set respectively during Ancient Babylon before the city was capture by Cyrus and the Persians, in Jerusalem at the crucifixion of Jesus, in 1572 during St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre when the Huguenots were slaughtered, and in the modern time of 1916. In each story, Griffith endeavors to show how intolerance has led to the suffering and persecution of the innocent.
There is a difference of opinion about whether or not D.W. Griffith made Intolerance as an apology for the racism in Birth of a Nation or as a defense against his critics. I fall into the latter category. He seems to have an ax to grind with progressive reformers (presumably those who called his movie racist) and his tone is more that of offense than defense. This is especially evident in the modern sequence of the film, where he makes the case that society’s ills are brought about by do-gooders, who are represented as frustrated old maids who cannot stand to see young people happy. Griffith lays it on so thick that he occasionally comes off as obnoxious.
Intolerance contains a massive cast, mostly made up of people he had worked with before while making short films at Biograph Studios. In the modern section, we have The Dear One (Mae Marsh) and The Boy (Robert Harron) trying to make a life for themselves in the face of interfering intolerance. His father is shot during a strike (brought about by decreased wages so the factory owner could have more money spent passing reforming laws). He goes to the big city and gets caught up in a gang, but falls in love with The Dear One and tries to reform. But reformers (and the gang) won’t let him reform and he faces prison while their baby is taken away from them. He is later accused of murder and there is a mad rush to save him at the end before he’s hung (involving a car chase and everything).
Both the Huguenot section and the Jerusalem section are actually given short shrift. I can understand why he didn’t dwell on the Jerusalem section (he uses it so he can cut to key moments to make a point – like cutting from disapproval of alcohol in the modern section to the miracle where Jesus turns water into wine), but it’s a little puzzling he didn’t better develop the story of the Huguenots, That is the one story he is telling that is genuinely about intolerance and his characters come to particularly bad ends in this one. But instead he lavishes his time and money on the Babylon sequence, which is pretty spectacular, but doesn’t exactly work as a warning against intolerance.
However, the story set in Babylon is probably the more entertaining story. The sets are huge! He out-DeMille’s DeMille in spectacle. The pageantry, an impressive battle and siege of the city (seriously, it is a really cool siege), priestesses writhing about half-clothed in the temple of Ishtar.
The hero of this sequence is The Mountain Girl (Constance Talmadge), who is such a free-spirited gadabout that her brother decides to sell her as a wife in the bride market. But the wise king Belshazzar (Alfred Paget) comes by and decrees that she does not have to marry if she chooses. Instead, she vows eternal loyalty to the king, going as far as to fight in the battle (it occurred to me that feisty heroines with bows and arrows is a surprisingly old movie trope that is enjoying a modern renaissance in films like The Hunger Games) and stealing a chariot to warn the king that he has been betrayed to the Persians by the jealous priest of Bel-Marduk (he’s jealous because everyone is worshiping Ishtar, which I suspect is because he doesn’t have any half-naked priestesses).
To be honest, the Babylon sequence really seems out of place in the film and could have stood on its own just fine. In fact, The Mountain Girl character was so popular that the Babylon sequence was released on its own and she was given a partly happy ending. As The Mountain Girl, Constance Talmadge comes across as the most vibrant personality in the film and it apparently made her a star. The modern sequence was also released as one film, but I found that story more uneven.
The first half of the film is rather slow, but things really pick up in the second half. As annoying as his preaching is (and his self-seriousness – he’s always putting historical footnotes at the bottom of the titles cards to assure us that he’s done his research), I had to admire his skill. He seems to have invented so many movie cliches and the way he juxtaposes all four stories in an exciting climax is quite thrilling. The ending left me feeling more charitable than I actually felt for most of the film.