Film #69 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies
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The year is 1915 and D.W. Griffith just made the biggest motion picture up to that point–The Birth of a Nation. Due to its overt racist themes, the film was met with nationwide protests, boycotts and even riots. No film had inspired that much controversy before (and not many have since) but as problematic as the film was, it was still an astronomical smash hit.
It was a national cultural phenomenon: merchandisers cut holes in sheets and sold them as Ku-Klux hats, or left them intact and sold them as kitchen aprons. Ushers dressed in white Klan robes for openings. In New York there were Klan-themed balls, and there was even a massive Klan-themed party in Chicago that Halloween. The only reason there wasn’t action figures and a cinematic universe, is the fact that it came out 100 years too early. It was that big.
Although it was a monumental success that literally changed Hollywood forever, Griffith felt that his film had not received fair consideration. The common misconception is that Intolerance was made as an apology of sorts. That Griffith was trying to make amends but that frankly isn’t true. He felt maligned, not because he was portrayed as intolerant or even racist or that he helped perpetuate awful stereotypes but because he felt like there were unjust restrictions on his right of free speech.
He was upset, so he did what any insane visionary does: he decided to go even bigger than before. Intolerance was going to silence the critics and make more money than The Birth of a Nation. It was going to be the biggest film ever made but to quote Ron Howard from the show Arrested Development—
The film redefined ambitious. With a budget of 2 million (which adjusted for inflation is about 80 gajillion dollars), Intolerance was a colossal undertaking. There were massive sets constructed and numerous costumes and extras for its unheard of four different time periods. Originally conceived as a contemporary story, the film eventually evolved into a grand panorama of intolerance through the ages.
In addition to the modern tale, the film also take place in 539BC Babylon, 1st-century Judea, and 17th-century France. The original film print had different color tints to help differentiate between the stories but that version is long since lost to time.
The ancient Babylonian story depicts how the conflict between Prince Belshazzar (Alfred Paget) and Cyrus the Great of Persia lead to the fall of Babylon.
The biblical story is a truncated CliffsNotes retelling of the crucifixion of Jesus (Howard Gaye). It’s by far the shortest of the four stories and easily could be cut for time.
The Renaissance chapter portrays the religious intolerance that led to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Second shortest one. This entry isn’t terrible but it could also be cut for time. Did I mention this film is 200 minutes long? Because it is and you feel it.
The last story is by far the best. A workers’ strike and a miscarriage of justice lead to an innocent man ending up on death row. Can his love find the evidence to save him or is he doomed to dance from the gallows? It’s the best acted and most compelling of the four stories. It has actual stakes, which adds real weight to the drama. The Babylonian story is by far the most epic but the 1917 story is the most intimate. I feel like Griffith could’ve cut the other two chapters out and split these two stories into two separate but equally great films.
Again, this film is so long, that you could cut out half of it and you’d still have enough material to make two completely different movies.
With a timeline that covers approximately 2,500 years, this film was the Cloud Atlas (2012) of it’s day and like that film, this also lost a shit ton of money. The critics unanimously loved it but audiences stayed away like the plague. Widely reported to have been a box office bomb, the actual numbers suggest it broke even. Whether it’s technically considered a turkey or not, is irrelevant. The film still lost enough money to effectively kill Griffith‘s career.
He gambled it all on the most ambitious work of art ever made at the time and while the debate over whether The Birth of a Nation is good or just important, there’s no debate whether or not this film deserves its reputation.
Noted critic Pauline Kael once wrote, “Intolerance is one of the two or three most influential films ever made and I think it is also the greatest,” and while I don’t necessarily agree with her second statement, her first is inarguable.
The story may have some problems and the pace might be a bit too slow for modern audiences but there’s no denying the fact that modern film would not exist without it. Not only does it deserve its spot on the AFI top 100 but it should be higher, quite frankly.
Bonus: Here’s a drunk off his ass Orson Welles talking about the film: