Although D. W. Griffith’s landmark epic
The Birth of a Nation
had been easily the most spectacular film to date, unexpected
controversy over the film’s racist imagery stung the director and
spurred him to outdo himself in a
Intolerance is a grandiose composite epic, interweaving four separate morality plays from different eras and settings, from 20th-century America (the "Modern Story") to Old Testament times (the "Babylonian Story"). Rounding out the four are a brief survey of the life and death of Christ (the "Galilean Story" [sic; most of it is set in Judea, not Galilee]) and events from the 16th-century persecution and massacre of Huguenot Protestants under the Medicis, including the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (the "French Story").
Artistically, the result is a stunning though flawed tour de force that is alternately dazzling and trying. Even casual viewers will be astonished by the awesome spectacle of the epic Babylonian sequences, which rival in their way the magnificent set pieces of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings.
Yet the interweaving of the fourfold stories, though a stroke of inspiration, is somewhat unsuccessful in execution. The stories are too lop-sided; the Babylonian and modern stories dominate the film, while the French story is under-developed, and the story of Christ — the greatest of all stories — is reduced to a few key gospel vignettes.
Thematically, too, the film isn’t always persuasive in regard to its central organizing rubric of "intolerance." Griffith’s interpretation of the fall of Babylon under kind, tolerant Belshazzar to Cyrus the Persian as a triumph of intolerance is unconvincing, not to mention bizarre (especially in light of the film’s biblical ambitions), as the Old Testament celebrates the overthrow of Babylon by Cyrus as divinely ordained! The film is peppered, too, with small moments likewise painted with the broad brush of "intolerance" for which that term seems less than clearly applicable (e.g., in describing the incarceration of a presumed criminal in the modern story, Griffith says "Society intolerates him away for a time").
Yet in the last act, as the four stories each build to a head in the first cinematic rolling climax in history, the film achieves true storytelling greatness. And the poetic transitional image used to mediate between the four storylines — Lillian Gish as motherhood, rocking the cradle of humanity — remains a powerful device.
Yet the film’s second half, with its outrageously racist stereotypes and view of the post-war reconstruction, incited protest even in its own day, and has only become more disturbing over time. Had Griffith concluded the film at the close of Part I with the stunning depiction of Lincoln’s assassination, controversy over the film would be a mere footnote. But there’s no ignoring the film’s final act, which, following the source novel and play The Clansmen by white supremacist Thomas F. Dixon Jr., celebrates the founding of the original Ku Klux Klan, climaxing with the Klan heroically subjugating out-of-control black rioters and restoring white control.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.