And then a year or so after his last flick, D.W. Griffith got high-concept and epic.
Intolerance is actually four separate stories told concurrently, all meant to illustrate how “love” has done battle with “intolerance” through the ages. There’s a sequence about the fall of Babylon, one about Jesus, a sequence about the French St. Bartholomew Day Massacre, and a contemporary story about a poor couple. The French story and the Bible story get short shrift, however; early after its release, Griffith learned that audiences were digging the Babylon parts way more, and made some cuts to the two weaker stories so he could put in some more Babylonian footage. I honestly didn’t miss them – instead of spinning out into a larger examination of the 1500s religious wars in France, the story focuses on just one family, with a virginal eldest daughter refusing the advances of a soldier because she’s engaged to another man; the massacre is his excuse for a revenge killing and that’s it. And as for the Bible story, well – a Catholic childhood and 2000 years of Western European Civilization has made me familiar enough with that.
The other two stories are richer ones – for two different definitions of “richer”, as well. The contemporary story follows a pair of young people, each driven to the Big City after a strike action at the mill in their home town (coincidentally the same town). They meet, they marry, and they are plagued by the law, and by a team of moral-busybody reformers – the couple’s baby gets taken away by child services when the women discover the mother having a shot of whiskey to cure a cold, and the husband gets framed for a murder and sentenced to hang. Griffith reserves his anger for the reformers, though – they’re depicted to be the cause of the strike in the first place, since the mill owner’s sister is among their ranks, and her demands for more money for the cause force the mill owner to cut wages.
The Babylon sequence is epic with a big ol’ capital “E”. There are enormous sets filled with platoons of extras, dance sequences, trained animals, chariot races, lavish costumes, and even some R-rated footage in the “temple of Ishtar” (any questions I may have had about whether a woman in a bath was actually naked were answered within ten seconds). Griffith even came up with the first tracking shot just so he could show off the scope of the set, rigging up a camera platform on an elevator so the cameraman could pan up.
The Babylon story follows a small handful of people – one of whom was, hands-down, probably my favorite in the film: a tomboyish “girl from the mountains” who’s visiting the big city. We first see her sitting in a courtyard, daydreamily staring into space; a moment later, a guy sitting nearby calls to her and lasciviously pats the ground next to him, and she rolls her eyes and throws a rock at him and I fell in love.
For the first half of her story, she’s a feisty bumpkin – exploring the city, sassing back at guys who try to hit on her – but later on she goes full-on action hero, after the king of Babylon intervenes on her chaos (she’s being dragged off to a “marriage market” and is threatening to scratch people’s eyes out) and issues a decree that she is free to choose her own fate. Out of gratitude, she devotes herself to him – turning spy when she discovers a plot to bring down the city, joining the archers defending the city and towards the end she’s even a chariot driver, desperately trying to get back from the enemy camp to warn the king of an impending attack.
Some of the cast were familiar faces from Birth of A Nation. I recognized Mae Marsh and Miriam Cooper especially, as the younger and older sisters from the southern Cameron family. Here they respectively are the young mother doing battle with the reformers, and a desperate woman who frames the young husband for the murder she committed. Marsh seems especially suited to ingienues; she has a giggly, fidgety energy, always biting her nails or gushingly hugging people. The “mountain girl” from Babylon was a newcomer, Constance Talmadge, and sounds not unlike her character – there’s a story that she was at a screening of the film and overheard two women behind her discussing the chariot scene, and how “they must have gotten a double to drive the chariot”. Apparently Talmadge turned around and asked them, “want me to show you how black and blue my knees got from that shot?”
The cast isn’t the only throwback to Birth Of A Nation. The pushback on that previous film was, in fact, the entire motivation for Intolerance. Not that Griffith was defending Nation as such, though – it doesn’t come up, and in a lot of places Griffith comes across as pretty progressive (the freedom granted to the Babylonian girl and the sympathetic depiction of the strikers at the mill among them). Instead, Griffith’s critique is against reformers themselves, depicting them as fuddy-duddies who need to lighten up. It’s the reason why the Wedding at Cana sequence is the longest one in the life-of-Jesus story line – “look, Jesus drank and danced, so it’s okay for us to do it too.” Unfortunately, Griffith couldn’t resist throwing a misogynist ad hominem into the contemporary sequence, suggesting that the reformers were all just ugly old maids who were jealous no one was dancing and drinking with them any more so now they were taking away everyone’s fun.
Ultimately the film was a box office flop, even with Griffith’s post-release cutting to add more Babylon footage. The sales were never enough to offset the cost of production, and since Griffith put up most of the money, he was pretty much financially ruined for the rest of his life. He made a handful of other films (some of which are coming up on my list), but nothing quite with this scope; after three modest successes, he had another box office flop and gave up producing and directing forever after.
One final note – I also inadvertently got an illustration in the importance of the film score. Since Intolerance is in the public domain, there are a few different DVD versions floating around, each with a slightly different print. The company who released mine selected a bunch of Generic Symphonic Music for the score – stuff by Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, and such; which lead to a really odd disconnect in the scene where the King of Babylon is learning about the enemy at his gates – as he’s hearing about the impending death of his people, the scoring for the scene was the Can-Can.