Intolerance is one of those films whose considerable reputation precedes it. Indeed, the only thing bigger than the film's reputation might be the film itself. Everything about Intolerance is grandiose, from the film's set design to its ambitious narrative scope. Even the film's subtitle -- Love's Struggle Through the Ages -- has an epic flourish about it. In one leviathan of a production, D. W. Griffith attempts to weave four episodes from human history into a single cohesive narrative, centering on the theme of the ruinous effect of intolerance on the course of human events. That Intolerance represents one of the watershed moments in the history of cinema is well documented, so it isn't necessary for me to give a dissertation about that aspect of the film. More interesting, rather, is the question of how well Griffith's film works as a individual opus. Was Griffith able to accomplish his goal of integrating four disparate stories into a single piece while simultaneously delivering a poignant message about the perils of intolerance? The answer is a resounding "sort of" -- the ambitious nature of the film is one of its strongest assets, yet at the same time, its most glaring weakness.
Intolerance is divided into four stories -- Judea at the time of Jesus, the Babylonian Empire, 16th century France and contemporary America (contemporary, that is, as of the 1910s). In each era, Griffith presents the audience with a different example of social or religious strife, and proceeds to illustrate how it has catastrophic consequences for those involved. In the modern world, a combination of puritanical social reformers and ruthless capitalists nearly ruins the lives of a working class boy and girl; in France, enmity between the Catholics and the Huguenots boils over in the form of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre; discord between followers of Ishtar and worshipers of Bel-Marduk leads to the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Great of Persia. As for Jesus, I think just about everyone knows what happened to him. Interspersed with all of this is a recurring image of a mother rocking the cradle while the three fates hover ominously in the shadows nearby. To make something of an understatement, there is a lot going on in this film.
Of the four episodes, far and away the most interesting is the story of Babylon. There is hardly a single shot of this segment that doesn't ooze with spectacle. Perhaps the most enduring image of the Babylonian segment is that of the Great Hall set, rightfully so -- the set was not just a model, and it most certainly wasn't computer-generated, but was a massive structure built to scale. A still image fails to do it justice; to truly appreciate the immensity of the set, one has to see it in motion, with legions of extras milling about it like bees in a gargantuan hive. No less impressive is the epic battle scene between the Babylonians and the besieging Persians, complete with siege towers, swarms of arrows, boiling oil, severed heads -- the first decapitations in film history, perhaps! -- and some sort of Babylonian flamethrower-tank which, despite being of dubious historical accuracy, is awesome as hell none the less. Add to this already potent mixture a few gratuitous scenes of scantily-clad harem girls going about their scantily-clad business (which apparently entails doing some sort of funky Babylonian macarena -- and the result is that D. W. Griffith seems to have captured the essence of Heavy Metal some sixty years before its inception! Finally, the Babylonian sequence also includes the most memorable character in the film: the Mountain Girl, as portrayed by Constance Talmadge. Not only is the Mountain Girl a certifiable badass -- she drives a chariot and launches arrows at the invading Persians during the siege of the city -- but Constance appears to be having the time of her life playing the character (for what it's worth, she actually piloted the chariot herself).
Although not without its highlights, the remainder of the film doesn't quite hold up to this lofty standard. The modern day storyline has a good deal of potential, but jumps the proverbial shark with a chase scene that seems a bit out of place in the film; it might be more at home in a slapstick comedy. There is, however, a particularly notable moment where we see that the trapdoor of the gallows where the nameless protagonist is sentenced to hang is triggered by the severing of three cords -- a timely visual allusion to the three fates of Greek mythology. Despite its drawbacks, the story still hangs together nicely.
Less captivating is the portion of the film which occurs in 16th century France. This segment is not as fleshed-out as its Babylonian and 20th century counterparts, and the acting is occasionally a bit too histrionic at times (King Charles, in particular, chews the scenery like nobody's business). Douglas Fairbanks does will in his role, and the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre is quite effective, but the build-up to the climax just isn't all that compelling. Finally, the biblical portion of the film feels tacked-on, as though it were a means of beating the audience about the head and ears with a religious and moral message (subtlety, it seems, was not D. W. Griffith's forte).
What is unfortunate about all this is that each of the four scenarios presented in Intolerance would likely work quite well if produced as individual feature films. Indeed, the excellent Babylonian segment did receive such a treatment -- Griffith re-released it as a stand-alone film in 1919 as The Fall of Babylon, and in the same year the modern storyline was re-released as The Mother and the Law. With a bit more development, the French scenario could work as the sort of swashbuckling historical adventure for which Douglas Fairbanks became famous. As for the biblical plot, the sheer number of (at least commercially) successful films about Jesus -- from King of Kings to The Passion of the Christ -- is proof that the story holds a wide and lasting appeal. Cramming all these elements into a single production, however, is like tap dancing and building a ship in a jar at the same time -- it's a classic example of trying to do too much at once.
My other complaint lies with the film's ending. In the closing minutes of the film, D. W. Griffith sermonizes on the importance of tolerance with a series of heavy-handed visuals -- smiling children, prisoners miraculously vanishing from jails, soldiers laying down their weapons and a heavenly host of angels hovering overhead. Rather than allow the common theme of his four stories speak for itself, Griffith opts to beat the audience over the head with the point he's trying to make. It's about a subtle as an axe to the forehead.
Intolerance was a critical -- if not commercial -- success when it was released, and continues to be regardes as one of the most important films ever made. Although I do have my complaints about the film, I cannot disagree about its significance. Intolerance was a paradigm shift in the history of film and in the art of film making. It is not without its flaws and its style may be somewhat dated, but the film's monumental importance makes it required viewing. Besides, the Babylonian sequence alone makes Intolerance worth watching at least once. If, as happened to me, you should find yourself stuck in a blizzard with an afternoon to kill, consider it a golden opportunity to watch one of the most epic pictures ever set in celluloid.