Starring: Mae Marsh, Alfred Paget, Seena Owen, Constance Talmage
Director: D.W. Griffith
Critics haven’t always been very tolerant of Griffith’s monumental 2 hour, 47 minute epic, but its influence on later films is incalculable, and its Babylonian scenes started a craze for false eyelashes which is with us till this day. No less than a panorama of hatred and intolerance battling with love and charity over the ages, it comprises four stories – Jesus’ life and crucifixion, the St Bartholomew Day’s massacre, a modern day story and the tale of the fall of Babylon. Of these, it’s the last two that make up the bulk of the movie. Although a little sentimental and cloying at times, the modern day story – which sees an innocent working class couple brought low by reformists and meddlers – shows that Griffith was able to work in an idiom of powerful simplicity. Some of the performances are surprisingly raw, and the anti-capitalist message is uncompromisingly trenchant, with a forceful depiction of the Ludlow massacre where the National Guard were called out against striking mill-workers.
That said, the undoubted star attraction is ancient Babylon. The scale and detail of the historical recreation still amaze, and the siege really does look like newsreel footage from 539 BC. Even people weaned on Peter Jackson’s Rings trilogy will be impressed by the scenes of trundling siege towers and flaming battlements, and in the meantime there are some racy scenes in the Love Temple, with diaphanously draped virgins and nude bathing beauties. Griffith had an eye for the exotic which post-Code Hollywood costume dramas never came near to matching – just check out the wise and mighty King Belzhezzar, sitting in splendour, idling patting a leopard with a spray of flowers in its mouth.
Intolerance is chiefly famous for its cross-cutting between stories and time-frames, the audacity of which is said to have taken contemporary audiences aback. Even today it can make for slightly odd viewing. Towards the end, as the eye jumps from a steaming locomotive to charging Persian charioteers and back again, it’s hard not to be reminded of the riotous, genre-colliding end of Blazing Saddles. But more often, you’re driven forward by the powerful surging rhythm of Griffith’s cutting (especially in this edition, which benefits from a superb score by Sir Colin Davis).
There is perhaps no silent era director whose films benefit more from a thorough-going restoration than Griffith. Once you no longer have to peer through a scuzz of dirt and scratches, you can really appreciation the brilliance of his compositions and his command of atmosphere. On this Blu-ray, the scenes of the Babylonian army massing on their 300 feet high ramparts as the Persian machines of war gather below are wreathed in ominous veils of dust, and the famous swooping shot of the feast (it looks like a crane shot, but they actually placed the camera in a moving tower fitted with an elevator) now flutters with vibrant motion.
A few years later, Griffith split Intolerance into two films, The Fall of Babylon and The Mother and the Law, which are included on the second disc of the Masters of Cinema release. The Fall of Babylon is particularly nice to have as it includes a lot of additional material to do with the comically uncouth, onion-chewing Mountain Girl and her attempts to catch the eye of her idol, Belshezzar. There’s also a very informative 19-minute piece with silent movie expert Kevin Brownlow, who talks about the film’s origins and influences and reveals that Griffith originally started with the idea of a modern day story and then broadened it out to include ancient Babylon.