Movie Reviews - Featured Films » Epic Films - Silent

Intolerance Movie Review

griffith story stories christ

1916 – D.W. Griffith –

Like Hollywood itself, there's not much good or bad you can say about this epic of epics that isn't true. Following the controversy surrounding charges of racism in The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith combined the urge to reply to his critics with the showman's desire to top himself. The result was Intolerance, which connects four separate stories from different time periods into a continuous narrative. Griffith usually credited the novels of Charles Dickens as his influence in coming up with his celebrated crosscutting between separate actions (“Novelists think nothing of leaving one set of characters in the midst of affairs and going back to deal with earlier events in which another set of characters is involved”). In Intolerance Griffith links his stories conceptually and dramatically rather than chronologically. Each receives an exposition: a contemporary love story, the story of Christ, the conflict between Catholic and Huguenot in 1575 France, and the fall of ancient Babylon. Early transitions among the stories are signaled by a shot of the turning pages of a book and the image of a woman rocking a cradle (an idea Griffith adapted from a Walt Whitman poem). Later, as the plots developed, he assumed greater audience familiarity and dispensed with some of the transitions. All four stories concern themes of injustice or intolerance. Three of the four conclude with ride-to-the-rescue finales in which Griffith alternates shots of different durations and from different distances (usually shorter and closer as the climaxes near) in order to protract the suspense.

What Griffith gained in structure and pace, however, he lost in emotional intensity. As Richard Schickel observes in his biography of Griffith, “The trouble with Intolerance at the popular level is that it kept interrupting one narrative with another, spoiling the identificatory impulse just as it started to build.” The contemporary story, about a boy falsely accused of murder and his sweetheart's attempt to secure the governor's reprieve before his execution, is thought by many to be the most compelling. The Christ story gets the sketchiest retelling, little more than three scenes (a miracle, a teaching, and the crucifixion). The sets for the Babylonian story were spectacular, and Griffith added a footnote to a title card detailing their dimensions. Surviving photographs show him directing these sequences from the basket of a hot-air balloon. He mounted the camera on a makeshift elevator built on a flatbed train car, thereby creating the first crane shot.

Cast: Lillian Gish (the woman who rocks the cradle), Mae Marsh (the dear one), Fred Tucker (her father), Robert Harron (the boy), Sam De Grasse (Arthur Jenkins), Vera Lewis (Mary T. Jenkins), Miriam Cooper (the friendless one), Ralph Lewis (the governor), Lloyd Ingra-ham (the judge), Tod Browning (owner of the racing car), William Brown (the warden), Howard Gaye (the Christ), Lillian Langdon (Mary, the Mother), Olga Grey (Mary Magdalene), Erich von Stroheim (Pharisee), Frank Bennett (Charles IX), Josephine Crowell (Catherine de Medici), Constance Talmadge (Marguerite de Valois), W.E. Lawrence (Henry of Navarre), Alfred Paget (Bels-hazzar), Seena Owen (Attarea), Carl Stockdale (King Nabonidus) Screenwriter: D.W. Griffith Cinematographer: Billy Bitzer, Karl Brown Composer: Joseph Carl Breil Running Time: 175 minutes Format: VHS, LV Budget: $2.5M.

Napoleon Movie Review [next] [back] The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse Movie Review

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or