Day 322: ‘D.W. Griffith’s Complete Lack of Tolerance’ 2018

Day 322
Friday 18 May 2018  2.56am
‘D.W. Griffith’s Complete Lack of Tolerance’   2018

Intolerance  (1925)  A  D.W. Griffith Film

Top 100 Films Ever Made –
This film is equal #93 in the 2012 BFI Critics Poll and #224 in the Directors Poll.

This spectacular film, made circa 1915 and released in 1916, is so epic in its vision that it can’t – or shouldn’t – be reduced to two or three categories. It is so wide-ranging in what it tries to show and what it attempts to say – about life – that it needs to be approached from several different angles. This is especially so because of the limitations of providing a richly detailed story when dialogue is limited to a few cards every scene. Where this film’s inherent and obvious greatness lies, is idue to the scale on which Griffith chose to set his acknowledgment that intolerance has always existed and will continue to, no matter the period or setting. That he chooses to illustrate his position across four vastly periods and settings, means that proportions of the film are truly epic, the film running almost three-hours.

The version I saw used a terrible print, dilapidated beyond belief, with some sections containing so many black spots that it completely detracted from, what should have been, the splendour of the images. It also had a fair, but uninspired organ accompaniment. It wasn’t dreadful but it was less regal and less beautiful than whatever orchestral accompaniment Griffith had organised for its 1916 release, which surely was as extraordinary in scope as the spectacle of the film itself.

I first saw Intolerance when I was a student at the University of New South Wales (in, I think, 1983). I thought it was a terrible shambles, full of over-acting, ham-fisted direction, showing a lack of understanding of its own intent. It was so contradictory within itself and what it showed through its images, that I couldn’t appreciate it on any level because I had nothing with which to compare it.

Seeing this film again, thirty-five years later, also projected onto a big screen, I have much the same reaction. It’s often dreadful, it often is contradictory and I still struggle to see or understanding what message D.W.Griffith was trying to reveal to his audience, other than defending intolerance because it is an attitude that will always be with us. I have read that Griffith was accused of racism in his previous film The Birth of a Nation and if that is true, then is this a film which justifies the fact that there will always be differences with people? Or is it an apology, describing through the recurring image of Lillian Gish rocking a baby’s cradle, that the baby – presumably Jesus – brings peace and reconciles humanity, calling people to forebearance and love.

To answer all of those questions I would have to study books written about the early silent films and how to judge them in the context of their period – much like what Griffith does with his four major stories: Babylon versus Cyprus, the early-20th century – good versus bad, the politics of Charles IX and the Queen Mother in France – Catholics versus Protestants – and the time into which Jesus Christ the son of God was born – Pharisees versus God and the Son of God, Jesus.

The most important questions I want to ask about this film are:

Why did Griffith make a film about intolerance, called Intolerance?
What is intolerance and what is tolerance – how are they defined as words?
Does Griffith only aim to show the existence of intolerance or does he propose a cure for intolerance?

In terms of a topic, Griffith has chosen one of the most basic feelings of one thing or being when rivalled by another thing or being. In today’s world intolerance is more widely (or at least) associated with food allergies than religious differences, although as migrants make their way to rich western cultures, racial intolerance has become an issue again. In today’s world intolerance of beliefs will always sit between the perceived Intolerance of people who follow Christ against people who don’t. The bible’s intolerant attitude towards sin will always be a point of irreconciliation for believers and non-believers. The same with the Arabs and the Jews and the Muslims and Hindus and numerous other relationships fraught with difficulties.

Common definitions of the meaning of intolerance say that it is specifically to do with religious beliefs but I think that’s a recent thing – mostly about the last four thousand years of life on earth. Intolerance goes much further back than that. It goes back to the first time a parent and a child were unhappy co-existing. A crying baby can test a person’s tolerance levels and a would-be usurper can bring disharmony out of a period where harmony previously existed.

This is where I start to get the feeling that Griffith is showing that on many levels there is disharmony, irrespective of who is judged to be right or wrong. And judgment is one of the strongest ideas, if not the strongest, which is fundamental to each of the stories, because as soon as there is judgment there is the lack of one party to tolerate the behaviour of another party. What I take away from the ‘message’ part of D.W. Griffith’s film is that all humans judge all humans and that for there to be a lack of intolerance there needs to be peace.

One of the last intertitles of the film states: “And perfect love shall bring peace forevermore.” Whatever else Griffith wants to say, the woman rocking the cradle is rocking baby Jesus, who will restore peace to the earth. There’s an irony to that belief because most of the New Testament is about exposing the agitations between people of different beliefs. The Book of Revelation in particular is about violence. Yes, it’s a final violence that brings about peace, but it doesn’t bring about harmony, because there are many non-believer’s souls burning in hell. Baby Jesus isn’t the image of peace in reality which Griffith wants it to be in Intolerance.

Where does Intolerance fit into a list of the greatest or most important films ever made?

While it definitely fits the bill, to answer that question requires an important consideration. What were the other big films made around that period like, and how well-made were they? If you were 70-years old in 1960, since the age of ten you had seen – roughly – thirty years of film without recorded-dialogue and thirty years of film with dialogue you could hear.

For a person to have only experienced films with sound since they were ten you would be aged 70  in 1990. That means that my grandparents experiened ten of their first twenty years of life watching films which weren’t talkies and that most film directors who were still directing in the 1940s or 1950s spent half their career making films without recorded sound. You can play around with the figures and make them whatever you want them to be but this basic principle needs to be accepted: After Intolerance was made for the next fifteen years 99.9% of film that were made didn’t have recorded dialogue. Dialogue was printed on cards which were filmed, or titles inserted in between the images. Nearly all of the other silent films which are on the list of the Top 100 films of all-time were made ten-to-fifteen years after Intolerance which means that more than 10% of the Top 100 films are silent films. Given that the last list was compiled in 2012, that’s still extraordinary because silent films had been around for thirty-years and sound films had been around for eighty-two years, for more than a quarter of the period of filmmaking under discussion. So, look how much later all the great silent films on the Sight & Sound list were made:

Intolerance (1916)
Nosferatu (1922)
Sherlock Jr. (1924)
The Gold Rush (1925)
Battelship Potemkin (1925)
Greed (1925)
The General (1926)
Metropolis (1927)
Sunrise (1927)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Un chien andalou (1928)
Man With a Movie Camera (1929)
City Lights (1931)

General regard:

Halliwell, ****  “A masive enterprise of which audiences at the time  and after were quite intolerant. Hard to take in parts, it rises to a fine climax as all the stories come to a head…”

Maltin, ****  “Surely one of the all-time great movies, but be prepared for melodrama, preaching and some hokey title cards. Man’s inhumnanity to man are examined.”