Thursday, August 13, 2015
Directed, co-edited, and production designed by D.W. Griffith and written by Griffith, Tod Browning, Hettie Grey Baker, Anita Loos, Mary H. O’Connor, and Frank E. Woods, Intolerance is a multi-layered epic that cross-cuts different stories in different periods of time to display the concept of humanity. Set in periods from the contemporary world of crime in the early 20th Century, the story of Christ, a story around the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1752 in France, and the fall of the Babylonian empire. Starring Vera Lewis, Ralph Lewis, Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, Lillian Gish, Constance Talmadge, Josephine Crowell, Margery Wilson, Frank Bennett, Elmer Clifton, Miriam Cooper, and Alfred Paget. Intolerance is a grand yet exhilarating film from D.W. Griffith.
Set in four different periods of time, the film plays into some of the darkest moments of humanity as it cross-cuts from period to period to showcase the impact of intolerance. Among these stories involve the fall of the Babylonian empire in the hands of priests conspiring with Cyrus the Great of Persia where a young woman tries to help Prince Belshazzar maintain his rule. The second involves the story of Jesus Christ and the events that led to his crucifixion. The third is set in 1752 France as it plays into the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre where Catholic royals tried to wipe out Protestant Huguenots. The fourth and final story is set in the 20th Century as it relies on a young woman and a young man whose lives are ruined by a mill owner who tries to help his sister in her charity work in an attempt to do something good.
The screenplay takes in this back-and-forth cross-cutting narrative where each segment is often joined by an image of a woman (Lillian Gish) rocking a baby cradle which plays into the plight of intolerance. The stories about Jesus Christ and the St. Bartholomew’s massacre are the shortest as the latter would include a couple of characters who would become victims of this prejudice involving religion. The segment about the fall of Babylonia starts off with this mountain girl (Constance Talmadge) who is an individual that doesn’t want to do anything until she encounters Prince Belshazzar (Alfred Paget) whom she would worship and later fight for him against Persians though both of them are unaware of priests conspiring against the prince over him favoring the god Ishtar over Bel-Marduk.
The segment involving a young woman (Mae Marsh) whose life of simplicity and innocence is shattered by aging women reformists who want to clean up the world only to make a mess of things for her and her entire life that includes her husband (Robert Harron). It all plays into the idea of what people are willing to do to change things just because they don’t agree with a certain philosophy nor willing to share something despite difference of opinions and ideals. Things go into chaos as it leads to conflicts where many would suffer because of this as the script doesn’t try to go into anything heavy-handed though its narrative is at times a bit jarring due to how repetitive it can be.
D.W. Griffith’s direction is very vast not just in his presentation but also in the way he is able to capture moments that are exhilarating in its set pieces and drama. Much of it involves very extravagant shots to display the vastness of some of the period settings in the film as he and art director Walter L. Hall would do the set design for the film. That approach to large visual pieces would come into play for the scenes set in Babylon where it would include some lavish costumes designed by Griffith and Clare West as well as the settings during the final days of Jesus Christ and at the St. Bartholomew massacre. The usage of wide and medium shots are very prevalent in the film as Griffith isn’t just maintaining a look in time where things were big and new but also a world that is just evolving as everyone just wants to live together and love each other. Yet, there are those that don’t buy into that and ruin it for everyone.
The direction would also have these moments with some unique tracking shots and lavish crane shots to play into the action as well as scenes that are intimate and dramatic which involves the sequence set in the early 20th Century. With the aid of cinematographer G.W. Bitzer and some special effects work by Hal Sullivan, each segment would have a different look as the scenes set in France are often shot in green while most of it is shot in a mixture of sepia, black, and white. Some of it would include red and blue tints to play into some of the moments of the action as Griffith would edit the film with James Smith and Rose Smith to play into the intensity in some of the conflicts and heightened drama that occurs. Sullivan’s effects would come into play for the film’s ending as it has an air of sentimentality that Griffith wanted to show in a world that can be very cruel but also would have moments that are hopeful. Overall, Griffth creates a sprawling yet powerful film about the concept of intolerance.
The film’s music by Joseph Carl Breil and Julian Carrillo, with additional music by Joseph Turrin for its 2002 restoration, is among one of the film‘s highlights in terms of its diversity from bombastic orchestral arrangements for some of the more lavish scenes to the usage of harpsichord pieces for the scene set in France. Turrin’s pieces are more focused on synthesized orchestral music that adds some weight to the drama as well as moments where things do get really tough.
The film’s amazing cast includes a massive ensemble as it features appearances from Lillian Langdon as the Virgin Mary, Bessie Love and George Walsh as a married couple in the Jesus Christ segment, Frank Brownlee as the brother of the mountain girl in the Babylon segment, Carl Stockdale as King Nabondius of Babylon, George Siegmann as Persian leader Cyrus the Great, Tully Marshall as the corrupt High Priest of Bel-Marduk, Josephine Crowell as Catherine de Medici, Frank Bennett as Charles IX of France, Max Davidson as a neighbor of the young woman in the modern story, Tom Wilson as a kind-hearted police officer, Lloyd Ingraham as a trial judge, Ralph Lewis as the governor, and A.W. McClure as prison pastor. Howard Gaye is excellent in the role of Jesus Christ who displays the sense of mercy and grace that would raise the ire of those who saw him as a freak. Alfred Paget is fantastic as Prince Belshazzar of Babylon as the segment includes a wonderful performance from Seena Owens as the Princess. Yet, it is Constance Talmadge who is brilliant in her dual role as the Mountain Girl who fights for Belshazzar and in a smaller role as Princess Marguerite of Valois in the St. Bartholomew’s massacre sequence.
Margery Wilson and Eugene Pallette are terrific as a couple who would endure tragedy due to the St. Bartholomew’s massacre while Vera Lewis is brilliant as a former socialite who aids a group of reformists to clean up the city unaware of the damage she had caused. Sam De Grasse is superb as the socialite’s brother who would create a pay cut for the saw mill he runs as well as do things to ruin the lives of ordinary people. Miriam Cooper is fantastic as a woman in the modern story who would be the lover of a crime boss as she becomes integral to the film’s story while Walter Long is amazing as the crime boss. Lillian Gish is incredible in her small but mesmerizing role as the woman rocking the cradle as she is the link to all of the stories. Finally, there’s Robert Harron and Mae Marsh in remarkable performances as the young man and young women in the modern-day story as they both struggle to find good as the former would briefly turn to crime as the latter would display a sense of innocence into her performance as someone that just wants to be good.
Intolerance is a spectacular film from D.W. Griffith. Armed with a great cast, dazzling technical work, and a wondrous music. The film is definitely the true definition of an epic in terms of its vast visuals and compelling stories that play into the themes of humanity and its dual sides of good and bad. Even as it manages to create offbeat narrative structures to showcase how far the world has and hasn’t come in terms of doing good for a world that is often very complicated. In the end, Intolerance is a phenomenal film from D.W. Griffith.
© thevoid99 2015