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With: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, Constance Talmadge, Bessie Love, Seena Owen, Alfred Paget, Eugene Palette
Written by: D.W. Griffith
Directed by: D.W. Griffith
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 197
Date: 08/05/1916

Intolerance (1916)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Lessons from History

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

History has had a difficult time with D.W. Griffith, coming up with numerous labels for him and his work. Racist. Visionary. Old-fashioned. Ground breaking. Inert. Puritanical. Master filmmaker.

In 1915, Griffith changed the way we view movies with his Civil War epic The Birth of a Nation. At three hours, it convinced distributors that the public had an attention span longer than the one- and two-reels that had been playing at Nickelodeons and upscale theaters. The film was a massive hit and established virtually the entire language of film -- with the obvious exception of sound -- that filmmakers still use today.

Yet it had a dark side. In telling the true story of the United States, it failed to shy away from its ugly side, the racist side. The depictions of African Americans in The Birth of a Nation are hard to take, but hopefully the reason they're so disturbing is because we've moved on and become more enlightened than our ancestors.

Shortsighted people who became uncomfortable at The Birth of a Nation leveled their anger not at history, but at Griffith, calling him a racist. Hurt and offended, and rebounding from the biggest cinematic hit ever, he embarked upon a second, even more powerful epic.

Griffith aimed his four-tiered masterpiece Intolerance at those hypocrites who refused to see beyond their own surroundings. As the title implies, it explores intolerance throughout history, during four distinct ages: ancient Babylon, Calvary, sixteenth century France and modern-day America. Each story depicts a disaster resulting from some form of government or some puritanical group who inflicts wrong on the less fortunate because of misguided beliefs. This goes for the crucifixion of Jesus all the way up to 1916, in which a group of puritans try to take a baby away from a single mother (Mae Marsh), whose husband has been falsely accused of a crime and arrested. As he learned to do on his early shorts like A Corner in Wheat, Griffith intercuts the four stories, jumping back and forth between the heroes and villains within, drawing parallels between them, and rushing toward an exciting, simultaneous climax.

As if that weren't impressive enough, the film presents its stories on the grandest of scales, sparing no expense in re-creating the period, and especially the monstrous Babylonian sets. Hundreds of extras, real elephants and towering sets were all brought in for one majestic tracking shot that is still one of the most impressive moments in all of film history.

Unlike some of his modern-day predecessors, Griffith understood that spectacle had to have scale. Small moments must be inserted in alongside the big moments so that people can get perspective, literally and figuratively. And so he hired his greatest star, Lillian Gish, to play the symbolic mother who "endlessly rocks" in a wraparound sequence and unites the stories with a common theme. We're all born into this world and we have an equal choice to reach out, to be tolerant toward others. Intolerance helps us remember this very basic, very elusive choice.

Ultimately, the very expensive Intolerance flopped and Griffith struggled to regain control of his career until the end of his life. When the sound era breezed in, the movie business began to view Griffith as an antique and decided that his name attached to a film would scare viewers away. He worked, un-credited, on a few films but died in poverty and alone -- the victim of intolerance. Thankfully his film survives.

Intolerance is still available in a nicely mastered 2002 DVD release from Kino; it includes a filmed introduction by Orson Welles, a score by Joseph Turrin, text excerpts from pamphlets written by Griffith, clips from movies that inspired Griffith, and an alternate ending to the Babylonian sequence.

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