“Intolerance”: The Gish Sisters Blogathon Post
In her review of Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic film 1900, Pauline Kael wrote:
At a certain point in their careers – generally right after an enormous popular success – most great movie directors go mad on the potentialities of movies. They leap over their previous work into a dimension beyond the well-crafted dramatic narrative; they make a huge, visionary epic in which they attempt to alter the perceptions of people around the world. Generally, they shoot this epic in what they believe is a state of super-enlightenment. They believe that with this film they’re literally going to bring mankind the word, and this euphoria conceals even their own artistic exhaustion. Afterward, in the editing rooms, when they look at the thousands upon thousands of feet of film they’ve shot, searching for ways to put it together, while the interest on the borrowed money rises and swells, and the businessmen or government representatives try to wrest control from them, their energy may flag and their confidence falter. Their euphoria had glossed over the initial compromises that now plague them – an unresolved, unfinished script, perhaps, or an international cast with no common language – and there is always the problem of excessive length…no one has ever brought off one of these visionary epics so that it was a hit like the director’s preceding films that made it possible. Yet these legendary follies that break the artists’ backs are also among the great works of film history, transforming the medium, discarding dead forms, and carrying on an inspired, lunatic tradition that is quite probably integral to the nature of movies.
This may be an excessively romantic view of the movies – or art in general – but there’s a ring of truth to it. We need people who can do good work in established forms and genres of movies (and this itself is becoming rare these days), but we also do need works of mad genius that try to stretch art’s boundaries in some way. And the first great “folly” – that’s also one of the best movies ever made (in my opinion) – in American movies was D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, from 1916 (also subtitled as Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages).
Griffith at the time was, of course, coming off what would be his biggest success, Birth of a Nation (1915), which not only smashed box office records at the time, but was also credited with introducing such film techniques as panoramic long shots and night photography. However, Griffith was stung by critics who charged the film was racist and thought the movie glorified the Ku Klux Klan. He was also inspired when he watched the Italian silent film Cabiria, directed by Giovanni Pastrone, about a kidnapped little girl during the Punic War. And it’s clear he was influenced by the literature he grew up with, particularly Dickens. What started out as a simple movie set in the present day about capital vs. labor (called The Mother and the Law) eventually grew into Intolerance, which seems as much, as Kael puts it, like a symphony as it is a movie.
Along with the modern day story – which deals with a young couple, the Dear One (Mae Marsh) and the Boy (Robert Harron, who, like Marsh, had appeared in Birth of a Nation), brought together by circumstance – Griffith, along with Tod Browning (who would later go on to make the Bela Lugosi Dracula and Freaks) and veteran title/script writer Anita Loos, came up with three parallel stories, all based on history. In 532 B.C., we see the siege and fall of Babylon. In 27 A.D. (or thereabouts) we see the story of Christ, or as known here, The Nazarene (Howard Gaye), from the beginning of his ministry to his crucifixion. Finally, in 1572, we see the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in France. What ties all four of these stories together – aside from linking material of the Eternal Mother (Lillian Gish) rocking a baby in a cradle, inspired by Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” (and the line “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking/Uniter of here and hereafter/Chanter of sorrows and joys”) – is the fact all the stories (at least as Griffith has framed them) are about intolerance.
The Christ story (the shortest of the four), of course, is fueled by the Pharisees, who are self-righteous and hypocritical, and look down on the Nazarene for his reaching out to the poor and common. But the other three stories also feature so-called “moralists” who are trying to decide what’s “best” for society; the fall of Babylon comes about because the high priests are angry at Prince Belshazzar (Alfred Paget) tolerates all religions, which they feel threatens theirs, the massacre in France is the Catholics waging war on the Protestants (in this case, the Huguenots), and the Dear One and the Boy in the modern day story either directly or indirectly battle circumstances created by the reformers; the Dear One’s father, for example, is forced out of a factory he worked with all of his life after its owner (whose sister has joined a reformist movement) cuts wages to help pay for his sister’s work, and the Dear One’s father ends up dying thanks to his inability to get along in new working conditions. Also, when the Dear One and the Boy end up together, married and with a baby, the Boy, who had to turn to crime at one point when the factory closed down, tries to renounce that way of life, only to be framed for a crime by his boss, the Musketeer of the Slums (Walter Long); naturally, that’s when the reformers swoop in and take the Dear One’s baby from her, claiming she’s an unfit mother.
The relationship between the Boy and the Dear One isn’t the only love story Griffith features here. Along with the tale of palace intrigue in the Babylonian story, there’s also the story of the Mountain Girl (Constance Talmadge, who also appears in the French story), a headstrong young woman who’d rather fight than be married to anyone (even though she’s forced into that by society’s conventions), but who loves Prince Belshazzar from afar (especially after he spares her life), even though he is deeply in love with his Princess Beloved (Seena Owen); the Mountain Girl, in turn, is pursued by the Rhapsode (Elmer Clifton), who works for the high priests. Meanwhile, in the French section, the events leading up to the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre are played against an impending marriage between Brown Eyes (Margery Wilson) and Prosper Latour (Eugene Pallette), while a Mercenary (A.D. Sears) who ends up working for the Catholics lusts after Brown Eyes. Finally, even the Christ story gets a love story, as the one miracle we see the Nazarene perform is when he turns water into wine at a wedding (as described in John’s gospel) between the Bride (Bessie Love) and Bridegroom (George Walsh), and this naturally helps make the wedding a success.
It must be said, first of all, where Griffith falls short. The Christ story was originally much longer, and while he manages to sketch in the piety of the Pharisees (as one of them, played by Erich Von Stroheim, pauses in the middle of a street – which meant all other activity had to cease until he passed – and his “prayer” to God basically consists of congratulating himself on how good he is), the whole thing seems truncated. Plus, Griffith does indulge in heavy-handed symbolism; even before the sequence of the Nazarene having to carry a cross on his way to being crucified, a cross is super-imposed over his body during parts of the film (as when he prevents the Pharisees from stoning a prostitute). And the ending, which consists of Griffith’s plea for tolerance, is undoubtedly sincere, but also heavy-handed to the point of being insulting.
Still, none of those flaws can diminish the power of this movie, and Griffith’s achievement. It may be true, as Mark Cousins has been arguing in his multi-part documentary The Story of Film, that other filmmakers around the world were using techniques that Griffith, and Hollywood in general, is credited with inventing (or at least refining). And of course it’s true what seemed revolutionary today can, by the passage of time, seem so common; even the fact Griffith and G.W. “Billy” Bitzer, his cameraman, tinted each story in a different color to distinguish them has been copied (most notably in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic). But as Kael points out, Intolerance isn’t merely a triumph of technique; Griffith was using things like the close-up, the gargantuan sets (particularly in the Babylon story), and the editing of all the stories together because of what he was trying to express emotionally, not just to show off. This is one of the reasons why the other three stories, even though they can basically be reduced to cliche, work so well; Griffith summons up so much conviction and talent that he gives those cliches life and make them come across on screen. And even though the characters are all types, Griffith does recognize the complexities of the times; even when the Dear One is completely distraught over having her baby taken away from her (which wasn’t a unanimous decision amongst the reformers), she fleetingly thinks the baby might have a better life, what with the Boy being in prison. Similarly, the main reason Miss Jenkins (Vera Lewis) joins the reformers is because of how upset she is over the fact she’s getting older, instead of any zeal at reforming society.
What most people remember about the movie, of course, is the final part, when all four stories reach their climax (the Nazarene is crucified, Babylon, after one victory, falls, and the Huguenots are massacred; only the modern story has a happy ending, with the Dear One is able to stop the Boy from being executed for a crime he didn’t commit). Griffith had shown how the behavior of societies hadn’t changed too much over the years – the Mountain Girl is forced to participate in a marriage market, and show off her body; the Dear One ends up meeting the Boy when she decides to walk on the street the same way she’s seen prostitutes do so – but when he gets to near the end of the movie, it is less a study of behavior than a grand use of melodramatic conventions. The battle scenes in both the Babylon and French sequences may seem corny today because of how technically advanced action movies have become, but most action movies today don’t have the conviction and emotional undercurrents Griffith’s movie does. This especially comes through in the Babylon sequence, where the Mountain Girl tries, in vain, to save the city and her beloved Prince, and dies for her efforts.
Obviously, if you’re looking at this film for evidence of Gish’s acting ability, you’ve come to the wrong place, as she only appears as the Eternal Mother, you can barely see her face (she’s wearing a shawl around her head), and nothing is really required of her except to be there. But that’s because Gish was important to the movie in other ways. Officially, she was named as a research assistant on the film, but she was on the set constantly, helping Griffith make decisions about what footage to use from the daily rushes, and though not in name, basically served as Griffith’s assistant director during the shoot. Obviously, Griffith deserves the most praise for what makes Intolerance such an achievement, but Gish likewise deserves credit for helping the man she always referred to as “Mr. Griffith” make his vision work. As for the other actors, Marsh and Talmadge carry the bulk of the movie, and while they both may seem like opposites – Marsh is the playful, naive (at first) girl, while Talmadge is playing a tomboy, essentially – they both bring out the more complicated sides of their characters (the Dear One turns out to be tougher than she seems, and the Mountain Girl likewise is more vulnerable than you’d think). And again, that speaks to the power of Griffith’s achievement, and why, even after all the technical advancements made over the years, Intolerance still stands as one of the greatest films ever made.
Postscript: In 1987, the great Italian filmmakers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani attempted to pay tribute to Griffith’s achievement with their film Good Morning Babylon, about two brothers (Joaquim de Almeida and Vincent Spano), construction workers, who leave Italy to make it big in the U.S., and who end up working on the Babylonian sets for Intolerance. It’s an interesting idea, and Charles Dance gave a fine performance as Griffith, but the movie doesn’t work at all. Part of this may be the language barrier (this was the first movie the Taviani brothers ever made in English – and, to date, the only one – and their awkwardness in the language shows) but it also has to do with the fact they don’t know how to make the story cliches work like Griffith did.