For many critics and scholars — myself among them — D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance is the greatest film ever made. A century later we are as close to its subject as we are distant from its art. Political specifics, moral arguments, and movie styles may look different today, yet the only real difference is Griffith’s still-daring ingenuity, which calls for a more open-minded reception than in our simplistic habits we are accustomed to: It calls for an optimistic, united popular audience, which Griffith took for granted.
When Intolerance premiered on September 5, 1916, its opening intertitles introduced silent-movie viewers to an extraordinary narrative device: “Our play is made up of four separate stories, laid in different periods of history, each with its own set of characters.” Employing a prologue and two acts, Griffith called it “a sun-play,” marked by florid melodramatics developed from Emersonian Transcendentalism, which film scholar Bill R. Scalia has described as “calling for an original American literature,” for “poets with the ability to ‘see’ past the material, apparent world to the world of eternal forms, which shaped nature in accordance with a divine moral imperative. Through this connection, man-as-poet would discover God in himself.”
Griffith’s idea of cinematic “sun-play” to illuminate a darkened world might sound cornball to cynical Millennials, but his sincere, way-out-there expression of emotion and spirituality gave immediacy to each period story. In place of the saccharine, he interweaves four tales of religious and political persecution: the invasion of Belshazzar’s Babylonian kingdom by Cyrus’s Persian army; Christ’s crucifixion; the Catholics’ massacre of the Huguenot Protestants in 16th-century France; and, in the early 20th century, a young couple wronged by urban reformers.
Intolerance (available now from Cohen Media Group, on Blu-ray) derives from that moment when the mass audience — particularly the audience for the kinetic arts — was first being created, before niche marketing and solidified genres began to segregate peoples’ tastes, as is so egregiously the case with separate categories for film, television, and video games. Yet then, as now, the fact of artistic expression is that artists will ignore or take up social issues, seeking to persuade or else risking inevitable contradiction. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) was a perfect example of this. It was based on the primal issues of slavery, U.S. Civil War lore, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, all of which I have discussed at National Review Online (February 18, 2015). The Birth of a Nation was not just America’s first film epic. It was the country’s first political film, and the considerable outcry it raised compelled Griffith to make a follow-up — a grand statement — that would clarify his position on both bigotry and censorship.
With the almost three-hour Intolerance, Griffith got ahead of the controversy in an elaborate, over-ambitious way that recalled a politician’s tactical choices and an artist’s idiosyncrasies. Griffith sublimated his political apologia into the emotional and moral defense of love (which later in the film is aligned with “universal justice”). The four stories present cultural, social, moral, and political arguments for achieving and preserving humane values — the debate over which is still especially pertinent 100 years later.
Griffith used a disarming strategy. Instead of walking back the positions on race and class that many people attributed to him based on the complicated Birth of a Nation, Griffith in Intolerance doubled down, offering a large-scale, sentimental expression of his politics. He projected his combined sense of history, social conditions, literature, and religion open-heartedly, achieving the guilelessness that The Birth of a Nation had seemed to lack. Attempting to create mankind’s ultimate Big Picture as a spiritual speculation, Griffith concocted an existentialist point of view before that philosophical concept had gained currency. It is visualized in the central motif of a woman (portrayed by the actress Lillian Gish) rocking a cradle while behind her sit a trio of white-robed women representing the three Fates. Griffith adds to this the recurring motto “Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking . . .”
That line comes from Walt Whitman’s “Child’s Remembrance” (1859, and incorporated into the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass) — in the early 20th century, a reference almost as common as a Biblical quote. The narrative of Intolerance is rooted in popular literary and storytelling modes. There’s evidence of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities in both the modern-day and the Babylon tales and of Biblical influence in the Christ story; there are hints of Shakespearean court intrigue in the Huguenot saga (as well as in each section’s sumptuous, poetic details). The mix of simple characterization and complex events evokes the cultural lore of Twain as well as the soaring emotional fecundity of grand opera. With his photographers Billy Bitzer and Karl Brown, Griffith introduced innovative cinematic techniques, tinting scenes in varied colors for mood, for example, and giving images extra height and panoramic breadth to accentuate dramatic moments. All this makes Intolerance an unparalleled art experiment. Griffith achieved a persuasive moral argument by matching classical themes to contemporary issues. But the film’s social experiment — purposely consolidating moral precepts, social experience, and language — was also a success.
Imagine a contemporary director embarking on a film that chastises intolerance. I don’t mean those topical, politically correct diatribes against gun violence, the death penalty, or the Hollywood blacklist or in defense of abortion or gay marriage (Batman Returns, Dead Man Walking, Good Night and Good Luck, Juno, Brokeback Mountain) but a movie about the timeless, global theme — of man’s inhumanity to man — that encompasses almost all of world history.
We are constantly subjected to the methods by which filmmakers appeal to already-indoctrinated viewers, preaching to a choir accustomed to the biases of mainstream media. Griffith worked before America’s entry into World War I, in a perhaps less fractious era, which allowed him to address a filmgoing public as yet uncorrupted. This audience, through convention and habit, automatically understood expositions by Shakespeare, Dickens, Emerson, Whitman, and the Bible and shared those modes of expression, the collective pandect, and the implied collective ideologies. (Intolerance, like Birth and Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm, set during the French Revolution, was one of the rare movies to use footnotes, unashamedly citing the literary and painting sources of Griffith’s visual re-creations.) Griffith could reference, and proceed from, a common cultural fount to articulate his vision.
“Each story shows how hatred and intolerance through all the ages have battled against love and charity,” Intolerance’s intertitles explain. “Therefore, you will see our play turning from one of the four stories to another as the common theme unfolds in each.” And it is Griffith’s sophisticated use of love as a theme — perceiving both romantic and political ideas in jeopardized situations — that prevents the film from being mawkish or hackneyed.
A vow by busybody Reformists (“We must have laws to make people good”) begins Griffith’s epic and evokes that incessant cry for legislation as a response to new crises, evident also in our own era of political correctness (though, of course, the conservative and liberal positions in that regard have switched). We know how single- and narrow-minded partisanship affects lives, and this is where Griffith’s insight proves profound.
The film’s themes blend and connect — betrayals, deprivations, feasts, dances, even the stress and tensions of war and social conflict. The Babylon sequence contains a four-wheel flamethrower (before America’s entry into World War I); the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre features genocidal butchery modeled after pogroms (before the Holocaust); the modern romance between Dear One (Mae Marsh) and The Boy (Robert Harron) derives from a labor strike based on a Federal Industrial Commission report. History repeats the old conceits but appears fresh and piercing when seen in new contexts. Note how an intertitle describing “The Last Sacrament” leads to The Boy in prison, walking to the gallows and receiving absolution from a priest; through his invention of cross-cutting, Griffith achieves miraculous fluency.
Intolerance transcends rhetorical devices used to manipulate political positions. At the film’s peak, the intertitles drop out altogether. Emotion and intellect are stirred through pure visual energy, by the leaps and bounds of Griffith’s imagination triggering our own — both throughout recorded time and while keeping contrapuntal time with the separate events being depicted. (In his silent-movie genius, Griffith anticipated the jumpily edited phenomenology of French New Wave director Alain Resnais.) The storytelling is both expansive and detailed (from ancient battles boasting a believable cast of thousands to urban-crime tragedies and intimate courtship scenes — the sublime kiss between Dear One and The Boy) in ways that give the narrative a contract-and-release, accordion-like expanse. For a century now, filmgoers, taking deep, bated breaths, have watched the four stories of Intolerance move toward a simultaneous climax. The Friendless One (Miriam Cooper) in a racing car chases alongside a train to save an innocent’s man’s life; the dynamic scene is summarized by the intertitle “No. 8 [chases] after the train, leaps with new impulse.” Here Griffith features motorized speed, or locomotion, to announce cinema as an art that advances physical and intellectual momentum.
Instead of presenting issues as a banal political filmmaker would, Griffith argues with artistic telepathy — dramas of joy or grief are conveyed through the characters’ gestures, demeanor, and facial expressions. The battle of ancient Babylon as it is overtaken by Cyrus involves a betrayal of faith, the destruction of language, and the end of civilization. It is depicted in scenes of heartbreak in the past so that, in the end, the modern tale — the film’s central story — takes on greater richness and resonance.
Griffith ends Intolerance with prophecy: “Perfect love shall bring peace forevermore.” As if inspired by the Book of Revelation, the image of angels descending to earth as soldiers and then laying down their arms as children gambol in meadows would seem berserk if it were not so elating and audacious. During the first miracle in the Christ sequence, the image of a crucifix is superimposed on a likeness of the Nazarene; that device is repeated in the coda but now with blinding halation, the shape of a cross engulfing the screen. Imagine an icon of Judeo-Christian inspiration overtaking a 21st-century film. (Spielberg’s standing as a modern Griffith has changed, to judge from recent films of his, which are overtly political and lack his early ecumenical approach.)
From the psychological precision of the acting to the eye-dazzling imagery of the legendary Babylon-court tableau, Intolerance personalizes political history, conflating it with love. Griffith used cinema to examine both history and love deeply, proposing that, in his view, they are undeniably inextricable. That is still the boldest of all political propositions. Try to find a contemporary politician or filmmaker who would dare.
— Mr. White is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and, most recently, New Position: The Prince Chronicles.