|Directed by||D. W. Griffith|
|Produced by||D. W. Griffith|
|Written by||D. W. Griffith
Hettie Grey Baker
Mary H. O'Connor
Frank E. Woods
Frank Bennett (actor)
|Music by||Joseph Carl Breil
Carl Davis (for 1989 restoration)
|Edited by||D. W. Griffith
|Distributed by||Triangle Distributing Corporation|
|September 5, 1916|
|210 minutes (original release)
197 minutes (most surviving cuts)
Widely regarded as one of the great masterpieces of the silent era, as well as one of the first art films, the three-and-a-half-hour epic intercuts four parallel storylines, each separated by several centuries: (1) a contemporary melodrama of crime and redemption, (2) a Judean story: Christ's mission and death, (3) a French story: the events surrounding the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of 1572, and (4) a Babylonian story: the fall of the Babylonian Empire to Persia in 539 BC. Each story had its own distinctive color tint in the original print. The scenes are linked by shots of a figure representing Eternal Motherhood, rocking a cradle.
Intolerance was made partly in response to criticism of Griffith's previous film, The Birth of a Nation (1915), which was criticized by the NAACP and other groups as perpetuating racial stereotypes and glorifying the Ku Klux Klan. It was not--as is commonly implied--an apology for the racism of his earlier film; in numerous interviews, Griffith made clear that the film's title and overriding themes were meant as a response to those who he felt had been intolerant of him in condemning The Birth of a Nation. In the years following its release, Intolerance would strongly influence European film movements despite its lack of commercial success domestically.
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This complex film consists of four distinct, but parallel, stories--intercut with increasing frequency as the film builds to a climax--that demonstrate mankind's persistent intolerance throughout the ages. The film sets up moral and psychological connections among the different stories. The timeline covers approximately 2,500 years.
Breaks between the differing time periods are marked by the symbolic image of a mother rocking a cradle, representing the passing of generations. The film simultaneously cross-cuts back and forth and interweaves the segments over great gaps of space and time, with over 50 transitions between the segments. One of the unusual characteristics of the film is that many of the characters do not have names. Griffith wished them to be emblematic of human types. Thus, the central female character in the modern story is called The Dear One. Her young husband is called The Boy, and the leader of the local Mafia is called The Musketeer of the Slums. Critics and film theorists maintain that these names reveal Griffith's sentimentalism, which was already hinted at in The Birth of a Nation, with names such as The Little Colonel.
The American "Modern" story
Renaissance "French" story (1572)
Ancient "Babylonian" story
The Biblical "Judean" story
Cameo appearances/small roles
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Intolerance was a colossal undertaking featuring monumental sets, lavish period costumes, and more than 3,000 extras. Griffith began shooting the film with the Modern Story (originally titled "The Mother and the Law"), whose planning predated the great commercial success of The Birth of a Nation, which had made $48 million, about $688 million in 2017. He then greatly expanded it to include the other three parallel stories under the theme of intolerance.
Actual costs to produce Intolerance are unknown, but best estimates are close to $2.5 million (about $47 million in 2017), an astronomical sum in 1916. A third of the cost went into making the Babylonian segments of the film. The film was by far the most expensive one made up to that time. When it became a flop at the box-office, the burden was so great that in 1918 the Triangle Film Corporation had to be put up for sale.
Griffith mostly financed the film, which contributed to his financial ruin for the rest of his life.
Intolerance was met with an enthusiastic reception from film critics upon its premiere. Scholar Frank Beaver argues that "Griffith's intended message in Intolerance was not lost on reviewers", noting that in The San Francisco Bulletin a contemporary critic declared, "Griffith's film comes powerfully to strengthen the hand of the believers in love." Although Intolerance was a commercial failure upon its initial release, it has since received very positive reviews and later gained popularity. It has been called "the only film fugue".Theodore Huff, one of the leading film critics of the first half of the 20th century, believed that it was the only motion picture worthy of taking its place alongside Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings, etc., as a separate and central artistic contribution.
Intolerance was shown out of competition at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival. In 1989, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant", going in during the first year of voting. In 2007, AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) ranked Intolerance as the 49th best American film of all time. The film also holds a 96% approval rating on the aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes.
Critic Armond White considers Intolerance the greatest film ever made, writing, "A century later we are as close to its subject as we are distant from its art." Praise for the work is not unanimous, however. David Thomson argued that the film's impact is weakened by its "self-destructive frenzy":
The cross-cutting, self-interrupting format is wearisome ... The sheer pretension is a roadblock, and one longs for the "Modern Story" to hold the screen ... [That story] is still very exciting in terms of its cross-cutting in the attempt to save the boy from the gallows. This episode is what Griffith did best: brilliant, modern suspense, geared up to rapidity--whenever Griffith let himself slow down he was yielding to bathos ... Anyone concerned with film history has to see Intolerance, and pass on.
Intolerance and its unorthodox editing were enormously influential, particularly among European and Soviet filmmakers. Many of the numerous assistant directors Griffith employed in making the film--Erich von Stroheim, Tod Browning, Woody Van Dyke--went on to become important and noted Hollywood directors in subsequent years.
A replica of an archway and elephant sculptures from the Babylon segment of the film serve as an important architectural element of the Hollywood and Highland shopping center in Hollywood, Los Angeles (built in 2001).
The set of Intolerance was a key location in the video game L.A. Noire.
Intolerance is now in the public domain. There are currently four major versions of the film in circulation.
There are other budget/public domain video and digital video disc versions of this film released by different companies, each with varying degrees of picture quality depending on the source that was used. Most are of poor picture quality, but even the restored 35 millimeter versions exhibit considerable film damage.
The Internet Movie Database lists the standard running time as 163 minutes, which is the running length of the DVD released by "Public Domain Flicks". The Delta DVD released in Region 1 as Intolerance: A Sun Play of the Ages and in Region 2 as Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages clocks in at 167 minutes. The version available for free viewing on the Internet Movie Archive is the Killiam restoration.
Cameraman Karl Brown remembered a scene with the various members of the Babylonian harem that featured full frontal nudity. He was barred from the set that day, apparently because he was so young. While there are several shots of slaves and harem girls throughout the film (which were shot by another director without Griffith's involvement), the scene that Brown describes is not in any surviving versions.
Film historian Kevin Brownlow has written that, when Griffith re-released "The Modern Story" separately as The Mother and the Law in 1919, he softened the actions of the National Guard in the film, due to the First Red Scare that year. "He was obliged to put this title in the strike sequence: 'The militiamen having used blank cartridges, the workmen now fear only the company guards.'" In fact, "machine guns could not operate with blank cartridges at this period," Brownlow noted.