It’s 90 years old and there’s still nothing quite like D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. Oh, sure, there have been other multi-storied films that intersect to play on a constant theme: P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia is probably the most successful, with Paul Haggis’ Crash and Steven Gaghan’s Syriana the most recent. But these all differ in that their individual story lines actually intersect, or at least touch on, the other story lines.
Griffith tells four distinctly different stories from four distinctly different eras — a modern story, one about the St. Bartholmew’s Day Massacre in France, the Christ story and the tale of the fall of Belshazzar’s Babylon — that are connected only in metaphoric parallels to each other on the topic of intolerance. It’s no wonder the film was a box-office disaster in 1916. Not only was its pacifist tone out of keeping with the mood of the day, but it also placed heavy demands on a movie-going audience that was only then getting used to feature films and the language of cinema.
Griffith was not only expanding on the developing cinematic lexicon, he was also asking the viewer to follow four stories that were intercut into a remarkable tapestry. Intolerance may not seem hard to follow today, but it’s still something of a daunting undertaking for the viewer. In 1916, it was an even more daunting undertaking for Griffith, who never even wrote down the story, but carried this mammoth vision in his head.
The crew he enlisted to help him realize this vision (and who often take small roles) reads like a Who’s Who of films to come: Tod Browning, Christy Cabanne, Alan Dwan, Victor Fleming, Sidney Franklin, George W. Hill, W.S. Van Dyke, Erich von Strohem.
In size and scope and breadth of vision, Intolerance has never been equaled. It’s far from perfect — Griffith’s penchant for melodrama and for biting off more than he could chew intrudes. Yet as a concept and a milestone of film, its greatness is undeniable. Preachy and overstated as it may be, its relevance to 2006 isn’t far removed from its relevance to 1916.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke