Film 3 : Intolerance


Intolerance (1916) dir. D. W. Griffith.  USA.

“‘Intolerance’ is one of the two or three most influential movies ever made, and I think it is also the greatest. Yet many of those who are interested in movies have never seen it….  “Intolerance” was a commercial failure in 1916, and it has never had much popular reputation. After the reactions to “The Birth of a Nation,” Griffith was so shocked that people could think he was anti-Negro that he decided to expand some material he had been working on and make it an attack on bigotry throughout the ages. ‘Intolerance’ was intended to be virtuous and uplifting. It turned out to be a great, desperate, innovative, ruinous film — perhaps the classic example of what later came to be known as cinema maudit.

“…[Griffith] was living in an era of experiments with time in the other arts, and although he worked in a popular medium, the old dramatic concepts of time and unity seemed too limiting; in his own way he attempted what Pound and Eliot, Proust and Virginia Woolf and Joyce were also attempting, and what he did in movies may have influenced literary form as much as they did. He certainly influenced them. The events of “Intolerance” were, he said, set forth ‘as they might flash across a mind seeking to parallel the life of the different ages.’ It doesn’t work. ‘Intolerance’ almost becomes a film symphony, but four stories intercut and rushing toward simultaneous climaxes is, at a basic level, too naive a conception to be anything more than four melodramas told at once. The titles of ‘Intolerance’ state the theme more than the action shows it, and the four parallel stories were probably just too much and too bewildering for audiences. Also, the idealistic attack on hypocrisy, cruelty, and persecution may have seemed uncomfortably pacifistic in 1916.”

–Pauline Kael

Abigail: I was VERY apprehensive to watch more DW Griffith after the abomination that is Birth of a Nation, but this was actually a really pleasant 4 hours!  It follows four distinct timelines, held together by Lillian Gish rocking a baby, and each describes the destruction wrought by being intolerant to others – a sort of apology, it seems, for his intolerance of Black people.  There are some truly incredible shots, particularly in the Babylonian timeline.  But the “present” timeline is an actual story.  This is the first film where Griffith seems to be playing with the idea of “dialogue”.  He also uses close ups of faces to tell story.  I really enjoyed this movie, and was very impressed by the scale and execution.

Forrest:  This isn’t at all the movie I anticipated.  After the horrifying calamity of “Birth of a Nation” I went into this pretty apprehensive, but was pleasantly surprised.  It’s a genuinely moving film.  It’s also, all other considerations aside, considerably more engaging than BoaN.  It’s the longer movie, but even at nearly three and a half hours doesn’t feel like a slog.  The vocabulary of film as a medium is expanding.  Griffith is becoming a stronger and more confident storyteller.  The characters are consistently compelling and distinct — particularly Mae Marsh’s Little Mother and Constance Talmadge’s joyously Shakespearean Mountain Girl.  The four crosscutting stories come together for a truly thrilling climax.  And the sheer scale takes your breath away.

One thought on “Film 3 : Intolerance

  1. Silver Screenings says:

    This is a film I’ve yet to see, because, FOUR HOURS. But I’ve made it a goal to watch it sometime this year, and your reviews have certainly been encouraging – especially if there is a payoff at the end. Thanks!


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