Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages – 1916 Griffith
A staggeringly ambitious (both in grandeur and structure) early masterpiece—experimental
Griffith lays out the complex structure in the opening titles—he’s weaving together moments of, yes, intolerance, throughout the ages—these four narratives unfold, in harmony, throughout
Another brilliant stroke is having Lillian Gish as the as the eternal mother character rocking the cradle—Griffith bounces the four progressing narratives off of these scenes. Great film form.
Griffith opens the book Intolerance as an introduction. This is no adaptation though (apparently he never even wrote it down—it was all in his head)- this is the making of his own genius idea. There wasn’t much of this but we’d see this throughout the ages all the way down to Wes Anderson opening the Royal Tenenbaums
Griffith even explains that these four stories “run parallel in their hopes and perplexities” – at least 50 transitions between them
The individual stories all are truly magnificent achievements in mise-en-scene— décor—Babylon is, rightly, the most well-known, but in the telling of Christ the Jerusalem setting looks astonishing.
Grandeur—size—a juggernaut– Griffith understood the entire frame, scale, the long shot that everyone from Keaton to Lean to Nolan would understand—large civic events run parallel in the four films—crowds—a parade, a dance
Babylon introduced last— the gates- wow —grandness
There are 5-10 really key camera movements—mostly of Griffith taking us from a long shot and gliding the camera in for a closer look—the move Curtiz would use time and time to great effect again a few decades later
No detail too small for Griffith- each of the four narrative strands have a different title card background (with his name and initials plastered all over them—certainly ego goes with that genius here-haha).
The sprawling ensemble interwoven certainly is Altman— gigantism and the use of rear-projection (I think they are miniatures here) are DeMille. There are a couple shots here that are directly taken and put in The Ten Commandments and that’s 40 years later
Massive extras, the strike in the modern era sequence, the prisoners— there are 100 frame with 50-100+ people and extras in them. And I just did a Buster Keaton study—the importance of the entire frame, the long shot, and here—nobody does it better. Direct shots taken in Nolan’s masterpiece Dunkirk
The catapult on the towers, the Babylonian battles are astonishing, epic, elephants, massive sets—Cleopatra and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings—just jaw-dropping ridiculous set pieces- the army of Cyrus here.
The film is shot in two acts with a prologue. Griffith is the father of the epic that would dominate again in the late 1950’s and 1960’s in Hollywood. Just after the start of the second act we get the feast of Belshazzar—the famous crane shot. Along with the injured soldiers shot in Gone With the Wind it’s one of the great crane shots in cinema. Hundreds of extras as Griffith floats the camera down. You can’t overstate it—one of the finest 20 seconds in cinema history.
The Babylon strand is so strong, The French one probably the weakest- but even if it’s the weakest of the four the décor in the French sequences are astounding. I think it’s worth asking if it were just a movie about Babylon or if you mixed in the modern day narrative and Babylon and it was just those two would the film be stronger? I’d argue not—the four narrative structure with the mother earth rocking the cradle woven in makes the film. The parallel editing and cross-cutting.
It is a little bit grating (and funny) how much work goes into interjecting the title into the dialogue. I’m nit-picking.
Even in a courtroom scene in the modern day narrative strand Griffith puts the camera at a far distance and give us the back of the head on 100+ people. He could’ve shot this in any way— again—this is size, this is a big trial.
The power of the cuts comes in during the climax especially, the rhythm is going, this is a dance, a jib, it is speeding up, it’s not equal or even or mathematical, it is instinctual on which story to cut to and when and Griffith lays it out perfect—from the trial in the modern day sequence to Christ carrying the cross, to the chases in the various stories and magnitude of Babylon.
Griffith is one of the (if not THE) father of the close-up as well on top of everything else. It isn’t used as much here as it is in The Birth of a Nation but there is a great close-up of Mae Marsh after the sentencing.
The music is imperative- like the cross-cutting in Nolan’s films aided by Hans Zimmer—the music ratchets it up, it intensifies– and even within the four stories there’s parallel editing—like trying to reach the hangman in time with new evidence and they’re racing a train.
Again the jumping between the stories increases—Gish scenes increasingly acting as the bridge and connecting device as well
Frame tinting—each of the four stories a different tint– towards the end the shot of the three crosses in the Christ sequence in the very back of the depth of field with blue/purple tinting. Haunting- beautiful. The modern story has the amber tint, Judean story blue, French a reddish/brown and the Babylon a greenish gray.
One of cinema’s greatest achievements in editing. Clearly an influence on Eisenstein and Potemkin
The children at the end in close-up, Tree of Life, ambition, superimposed heavens falling to earth
Intolerance came out in 1916, one year after The Birth of a Nation. Intolerance is a capital “M” masterpiece. David Kehr of the Chicago reader says “Made in 1916 and still ahead of the times, D.W. Griffith’s magnificent epic intercuts four stories set in four different periods—an experiment with cinematic time and space that even the avant-garde has only recently begun to absorb. Griffith conceived the film as four rivers that “seem to flow together in one common flood of humanity.” One of the great breakthroughs—the Ulysses of the cinema—and a powerful, moving experience in its own right.” Like he says the film interweaves 4 separate stories from 4 separate time periods that all revolve around “intolerance” (intermingled with some great form of Lillian Gish as a sort of mother earth/father time type of character rocking a cradle in space (or heaven maybe) back and forth). It’s incredibly dense as Griffith quickly introduces many time periods, characters, and relationships. Your head really starts to spin the first 40 minutes- I can only imagine audiences in 1916- it’s no wonder this was a box office disaster. It’s not an easily accessible film. One of the first things that impresses you is just the sheer size of this epic. It has a massive cast of extras, complex and big set designs, there is even a gorgeous, what looks like crane shot of the Babylon section of the film shown in part here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cM5hVs2UB4s . Of course the parallel editing and the narrative structure are pure genius. I mean the narrative structure itself with the 4 stories and how they are cut is a form of parallel editing. I’d love to see a Dr. Bordwell treatment of it in its ABACADBA structure and rhythms. There are even great tension building scenes of parallel editing within the stories that are being parallel edited together. Brilliant stuff and it really picks up during the climax. If this sounds familiar, it should. Clearly The Godfather Part II, was structured similarly- as was The Fountain, Ophuls’ Le Plaisir, PTA’s Magnolia (see the Altman reference above) The Hours, Cloud Atlas, Resnais’ Mon oncle d’Amérique, Nolan’s Dunkirk.