His ambitious follow-up to The Birth of the Nation a year before, D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance boasts four narrative threads meant to intertwine in a story of grand design. Transcending time, eras, and cultures, this monumental undertaking grabs hold of some of the cataclysmic markers of world history. They include the fall of Babylon, the life, ministry, and crucifixion of Christ, along with the persecution of the Huguenots in France circa the 16th century.
The stories are stitched together and become only a few touchstones in a contemporary tale of a young man and woman battling against the bleak world around them. The Dear One must try and recover her child from the clutches of a society crippled by corruption, while her husband must battle against a criminal past that looks to ruin his life forever. Each setting has its lulls and crescendos that fluctuate between the mundane and the overtly bleak.
Although some of the religious undertones are somewhat simplistic they still have some resounding power in their successive notes. A Christ subjected to the crucifixion sent there by hypocritical Pharisees. A mother crying to God that she might recover her child because the corrupt and evil seem to be having their way with her. These are the low points of despair. But just as Babylon fell at the hand of Cyrus the Great, our hero The Boy escapes the business end of the hangman’s noose literally by a matter of seconds. It’s perhaps the most intense and ultimately gratifying moment in a film that runs the gamut emotionally.
The film’s four arcs are certainly not in equal parts or equal in impact, but nevertheless, they suggest the complex plotting that Griffith was attempting to experiment with and it’s still quite impressive even by today’s standards. He takes such a broad, universal theme like intolerance and gives it legs in the form of a story that crosses time and space, cultures and languages to really meet all people where they are at. I will stop short of calling it overlong, because Intolerance is one of the truly epic films out there, and while it’s possible to lose a bit of the film’s cohesion, it nevertheless is an impressive endeavor.
So perhaps it’s true that he made the film due to people’s criticism of The Birth of the Nation — though it seems rightly justified. Still, even to this day, the film stands as an emblem of something more and perhaps the best “sequel” to a film of such a dubious nature. It cannot cover up for the sins of the former film, but it can certainly overshadow them. History has looked kindly on Intolerance and if it is not more widely known than its predecessor than it certainly deserves to be.
You could argue that D.W. Griffith was the first person to really explore the language that is film, as a mode of artistic expression. Because, although it may have cleaned Griffith out and ended up an unfulfilled commercial flop, there is no doubt that this colossal silent left an indelible mark on the industry. Perhaps Hollywood took note and began to turn away from the single-minded vision of auteurs in favor of a regimented machine that churned out a commercial product. That ‘s the Classic Hollywood period for you. However, Griffith perhaps unwittingly created many of the rules and dimensions that Hollywood would take to heart and systematically put to work in its future works. Furthermore, a case can be made that Griffith also set the groundwork for European cinema that often gave birth to loftier, more artistically inspired works altogether. Thus, the influence of Griffith cannot be understated. He was vastly important to the medium of film as we now know it.