Intolerance: Masters of Cinema Review
D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation had been a huge success, one which could count as one of the highest-grossing films of all time if you take inflation into account. It was also very controversial because of its racial aspects, not least the heroic part the Ku Klux Klan play in its second part and climax. For his part, Griffith was stung by the accusations flung his way, and for his next film he explicitly addressed the theme indicated in its title: Intolerance. However, as Kevin Brownlow points out in his interview on this Blu-ray, Griffith felt he had nothing to apologise for in Birth, and racial prejudice is a form of intolerance not addressed in his next film.
Intolerance, subtitled Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages, began life as The Mother and the Law, a story set in contemporary America, and shot after the completion of Birth but before its release. A mill owner (Sam de Grasse) orders a pay cut for his workers and the resulting strike is brutally put down. Our hero (Robert Harron) and his beloved Dear One, as the intertitles call her (Mae Marsh), escape to another city but have to live in poverty and he turns to crime. Once he had completed this feature, Griffith felt this story was not enough for a suitable follow-up to his Civil War epic and so re-edited it and intercut it with three other stories from history – the fall of Babylon, the crucifixion of Jesus and the massacre of the Huguenots – to illustrate the theme of the title. The transitions from one story to another are linked by an image of eternal motherhood (Lillian Gish) rocking a cradle.
If the scale of The Birth of a Nation was something cinema audiences were unused to – though there had been precedents, such as the 1913 Italian film Cabiria, an acknowledged influence – in Intolerance Griffith outdid it. Intolerance was by far the most expensive film ever made to that point, and just looking at the enormous sets built for the Babylonian story (with high angles provided by a camera on a purpose-built lift), not to mention some three thousand extras, and you can see where the money went.
In my review of The Birth of a Nation, linked to above, I suggest that by that film's release in 1915, nine years after the world's first feature-length (one hour plus) film and three after the first one made in the USA, the template of the narrative feature film was in place. While Griffith didn't himself come up with many of the innovations he was credited for, he still had influence in the way he used them. The finale of Birth has an impact to this day in its use of cross-cutting – and since one of the scenes being crosscut is the charge of the Klan riding to the rescue, it's an undeniably troubling impact. In Intolerance Griffith developed this further by cross-cutting between four separate stories – an early example of a multiplot and indeed of a portmanteau film. Along with many current and future stars in front of Griffith and G.W. Bitzer's cameras, behind the scenes were future directors Erich von Stroheim, Tod Browning, W.S. Van Dyke and Joseph Henabery, who had played Lincoln in Birth and played several roles on screen as well as directing the second-unit.
However, the commercial success of Birth was not repeated. Audiences found the multiple storylines prevented as much involvement with any of them. You can see why: there's a lot to take in over a long running time (two and three quarter hours), hugely impressive as much of it is. Also Griffith was born in the Victorian-era and there's a distinct sentimentality well to the fore in parts of it. The film lost money and its studio (the Triangle Film Corporation) was put up for sale. Griffith took the modern and Babylonian stories and re-edited them into two shorter features, The Mother and the Law and The Fall of Babylon, both reissued in 1919. In both cases new material was shot, and in the latter Griffith reinstated material he had removed when it had been part of Intolerance Buster Keaton parodied Intolerance in 1923's Three Ages. Griffith went on to co-found United Artists and continued to make films. Broken Blossoms, Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm were all successful, the last-named (set during the French revolution) approaching some of the scale of his epics of the teens of the century. But Intolerance is a case of this far, no further possible, and if it fails it's a hugely ambitious and impressive failure.
Eureka have released Intolerance in their Masters of Cinema line as a two-disc Blu-ray. Intolerance itself is on the first disc, the two companion features and the Kevin Brownlow interview on the second. While I doubt the film has any appeal to young children, it does still stretch the boundaries of the PG certificate it has. There is topless nudity in some scenes in the Babylonian sequence (there are accounts that a full-frontal nude scene shot, but this does not survive in any copy of the film) and some violent battle sequences, including a memorable decapitation. This goes to show that the kind of content, and the concerns about it leading to the Hays Code a decade and a half later, were in American cinema more or less from the start.
There are four versions of Intolerance currently in circulation: see here for further details. This Blu-ray is derived from the Cohen Media Group version, with an orchestral score by Carl Davis, written for its Thames Silents restoration from 1989. (Channel 4 showed it in 1993, along with Birth of a Nation, which remain two of the oldest films – in terms of years between cinema release and TV showing – shown on free-to-air British television.) This version of Intolerance runs 169:01, including the Cohen Media Group logo and restoration credits at the start, with the second of its two acts beginning at 99:40.
The Blu-ray transfer is in the original ratio of 1.33:1. The film was shot at eighteen frames per second, so is rendered into 1080p24 by repeating every third frame. The film was shot in black and white, but this version is tinted according to Griffith's intentions. The original is in very good condition, even if you take into account that it is nearly a century old. Grain is natural and filmlike. The greyscale is somewhat lacking, but that's a characteristic of the filmstocks of the time: panchromatic black and white film was not widely used until the next decade.
The music score is available in two options, DTS-HD MA 5.1 and LPCM Surround (2.0). Both sound fine, the former being mixed louder than the latter.
On to the second disc, and the two companion features: The Fall of Babylon (62:34) and The Mother and the Law (99:32). Both are presented again in 1.33:1 but this time in untinted black and white. Both films are mastered from originals clearly in a worse state than the parent feature, and there is noticeable damage, particularly in the latter.
Finally on this disc is an interview with Kevin Brownlow (19:01), historian of the silent era and along with David Gill, in charge of the restoration for Thames Silents. Needless to say no one involved with Intolerance is still with us (unless one or more of the babies or young children on screen is now a centenarian) but Brownlow did meet many of them when they were still alive, and he talks about them and the film he rates as one of the supreme achievements in motion pictures.
Masters of Cinema's booklet runs to forty pages. It begins with two new essays, "D.W. Griffith's Intolerance: Evolution of a Masterpiece" by William M. Drew, and "Coming to Terms with Intolerance" by Richard Porton, the former emphasising the making of the film, the latter more of an appreciation of it. Also in the booklet is Pauline Kael's piece, "A Great Folly" from 1968. Also in the booklet are transfer notes, stills and promotional artwork, film and Blu-ray credits.