(director/writer: D.W. Griffith; screenwriter: Tod Browning; cinematographers: G. W. Bitzer/Karl Brown; cast: Olga Grey (Mary Magdalene), Lillian Gish (The Eternal Mother), Robert Harron (The Boy), Joseph Henabery (Admiral Coligny), Lloyd Ingraham (Judge of the Court), Elmo Lincoln (Belshazzar’s bodyguard), Walter Long (Musketeer), Mae Marsh (The Dear One), Vera Lewis (Mary Jenkins), Sam De Grasse (Mill Owner, Jenkins), Miriam Cooper (The Friendless One), Elmer Clifton (Rhapsode), Alfred Paget (Prince Belshazzar), Fred Turner (The Dear One’s Father), Howard Gaye (Jesus), Josephine Crowell(Catherine de Medici), Tully Marshall (High Priest of Bel), Eugene Pallette (Prosper Latour), Margery Wilson (Brown Eyes), Frank Bennett (Charles IX, King of France),George Siegmann(Cyrus the Persian); Runtime: 177; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: D.W. Griffith; Alpha Video; 1916-silent)


Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

D.W. Griffith’s (“The Birth of a Nation”/”Broken Blossoms”/”Judith of Bethulia”)influential landmark epic silent film intercuts four distinct tales from history about intolerance that signals an attitude of inhumanity to others. The stories are linked by the image of an eternal mother rocking her baby in a cradle. Three stories are based upon history–one covers the events in Jerusalem that led to Christ’s crucifixion (told as a Passion Play), especially pointing out those Pharisees who were hypocrites; the second tells of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, that has Catherine de Medici, a Catholic, persuade her son, King Charles IX of France, to murder the Huguenots (Protestants); and finally, in 539 B.C., in ancient Babylon, the evil High Priest of Bel schemes with Cyrus of Persia to take over the empire from the decent Prince Belshazzar. The fiction story is set in 1914 in California, where the unmarried elderly sister of the local mill owner Jenkins, gets her brother to bankroll the reformers. The Jenkins foundation tries to reform the mill workers so they have less leisure time to be better prepared to work. When the uncaring mill owner Jenkins cuts the workers’ wages by ten percent to fund the reform movement, the workers strike. It leads to some of the workers relocating to a nearby city after the violent strike is put down by the army. The Boy, a former mill worker, whose father was killed during the strike, is now an exploited member of the slum Musketeer gang. When he tries to leave the gang, the Musketeer boss has him arrested on false charges and his wife, The Dear One, loses their child after she’s declared an unfit mom by the Jenkins foundation. The Boy is eventually released from prison, but when the Musketeer is killed he’s charged with the murder. The Boy is spared from execution when the Friendless One confesses and the governor grants an 11th hour pardon.

The film was made as a rebuke against evil and injustice, and as a rebuttal to the severe criticism that Griffith received from his controversial smash hit previous picture, The Birth of a Nation (1915). Griffith wanted to make sure he was not thought of as a racist and wanted the public to be tolerant of works of art, believing without such an attitude freedom of expression would be curtailed.

Intolerance was shot on a vacant lot in East Los Angeles, and its sets are are all massive and stunning. But the Babylon set is the pic’s true marvel. It was the work of chief carpenter, Frank “Huck” Wortman, who gets credit for many of the innovative ways the set was so beautifully and enormously built (bending thin boards and coating them in plaster gave the appearance of the set being larger than it was).

The execution of the pic appears stiff and the storyline somewhat silly for modern times, but despite being a tough watch it remains a great epic film because of the potency of its visual poetry, the intensity of its sincere message for people to learn how to live together in harmony and the enormity of its production extravaganzas. At the time, it was the most expensive film ever made, and it was rewarded at the box office as well as much acclaimed by the filmmakers and critics of its day.