At first glance, Intolerance almost feels like the 1916 version of a Notes app apology — a half-hearted way for DW Griffith to say after making Birth of a Nation (which we covered here two weeks ago), “Hey, I’m sorry if you were offended by my last film, but I’ve done a lot of soul-searching since then and what I’ve learned about myself is that I’m definitely not a racist.” But it’s not even an apology. It’s DW Griffith telling the world that he has nothing to apologize for and that, in fact, he is the victim. If the world were a more tolerant place (you see where he’s going with this), there wouldn’t be any of this unpleasantness over a simple difference of opinion. This is DW Griffith raging against cancel culture 100 years ahead of schedule.
But let’s put to the side Griffith’s motivations in making Intolerance for a second and focus on the film itself. Intolerance is an unwieldy beast, clocking in at three and a half hours and incorporating four distinct storylines from different points in history. His thesis is that each of different historical events (the fall of Babylon, the crucifixion of Christ, St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and modern American society, respectively) reflect a time at which religious and moral intolerance had a devastating impact on society. He clearly intends for this to be a cinematic magnum opus, and it’s an extraordinarily ambitious project — perhaps too ambitious for its own good.
Its haphazard jumps between storylines, especially during the first hour and a half, are done seemingly at random and only serve to cut the legs out from under any dramatic tension it may have built. We go long stretches of time without seeing anything of substance from the French or Judean segments to the point where it’s almost difficult to even remember what was happening in those narratives. The entire piece is overstuffed, trying to do too many things at once just for the sake of showing complexity. And it undeniably bites off more than it can chew. Linking together different historical narratives under the thematic umbrella of intolerance is a clever concept in theory, but what’s presented here is perhaps too broadly applied to the overarching motif for it to have the emotional impact Griffith undoubtedly expects.
Furthermore, the examples of intolerance he chooses as the focus of his moral epic breezily avoid any top of conversation that even remotely challenges the predominant worldview of its white, mostly Protestant audience. Decrying the persecution and crucifixion of Christ? Very brave, DW. A more thoughtful version of this film might have led the audience to look inward and question their own attitudes and behaviors. Instead, it gives them permission to feel self-satisfied and morally superior because they already agree that the events depicted in the film are wrong. And in fact, Griffith’s own prejudices give the modern sequences of Intolerance an ugly tone even as he preaches tolerance. It goes so far as to frame “do-gooders” (read: social progressives) as nosy interferers, spinster women who are mourning their lost youth and in their loneliness meddle in the lives of tragically misunderstood individuals doing their best to live a good life.
Intolerance is at its best when given space to breathe, most notably in the Babylonian sequences. With their epic scale and tremendous attention to detail, the massive set pieces create a captivating spectacle, one that is almost disappointing to cut away from. The scenes at the marriage market and Belshazzar’s harem are gorgeously shot, the latter containing a beguiling eroticism that Griffith all too frequently abandons in favor of pat moralizing. Intolerance would have been less grand, less groundbreaking, if Griffith had been more conscious of his own limitations (and, ironically, his own prejudices) as a storyteller and cut the four intertwining historical narratives down to a more manageable two. But it also would have made for a much more compelling film.
Visually, it stands as an early representation of the staggering heights the medium of cinema can achieve. It occupies a similar space as Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria, which was released two years earlier than Intolerance and is rarely given the credit it deserves as a trailblazer for the cinematic epic. These early “blockbusters” helped transform the act of going to the movies from a novelty to an event, and Intolerance is unquestionably an important part of that movement. But as a piece of narrative filmmaking, it has more than its fair share of flaws.