The Epic of Intolerance
D.W. Griffith’s classic out on Blu-ray
Perhaps D.W. Griffith felt guilty about The Birth of a Nation (1915), which pulled filmmaking to new heights while propounding a racist message rabble-rousing enough to inspire the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. Or more likely, the director wanted another cinematic mountain to climb. His next film, Intolerance (1916), was three-and-a-half hours of four interrelated stories. Not unlike the Wachowski siblings’ Cloud Atlas (2012), it was a puzzle-box of pieces set in different times and places unified by a common theme. Contemporary audiences for Intolerance were often puzzled, yet the enormous scale of the film’s ambition and its technical achievements inspired other filmmakers.
Intolerance has been released on Blu-ray, affording a chance to watch a visually clean version of Griffith’s epic. Some segments may appear stodgy a century on, but much of it remains a jaw-dropping achievement from an era when cinematic spectacle was hard earned, built from hardware, not software. Griffith constructed the walled city of Babylon on a Hollywood back lot and shot its fiery siege from balloons. The framing element for the segmented story pieces is a recurring, blue-tinted image of a forlorn Lillian Gish rocking a cradle as if to say: life goes on in an endless cycle of birth, tragedy, hope and death.
Alongside Babylon were stories set around the passion of Christ, the massacre of Protestants in 16th century France and struggles in contemporary America, including scenes of the National Guard gunning down striking workers and killjoy “reformers” trying to ban dancing and drinking—a warning sign of the Prohibition era about the begin.
Intolerance’s scenes of battle and massacre set high standards that have been equaled but seldom topped.