Even with computers that can generate just about everything one could imagine, able to render vast landscapes and conjure up thousands of figures in a single shot, a true epic is still a rare occurrence in film. And even to this day, Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages, stands as one of the finest film epics ever made, not only a spectacle of scale, but a conceptual epic, spanning through the history of humankind to highlight four stories of overwhelming love and domineering intolerance.
D. W. Griffith gradually eases the audience into each of the four stories: Ancient Babylon, the story of Christ Jesus, St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 16th century France and a modern tale (at least in 1916) of the industrial revolution. Each story runs in parallel to each other as the film develops the different arcs of how love and intolerance interplay against each other.
As the film progresses, Griffith begins to intercut the stories into one another, pulling threads of history and the flow of action effortlessly into a continuous stream of suspenseful climax and resolution. It’s amazing how effortlessly these moments work together and how the displacement in space, time and characters is easy to trace because of how Griffith gradually introduces this technique and then begins to make the stories run into each slowly as time passes.
If one wanted to be nitpicky, one could say that the Jesus story only exists in order to allow Griffith to intercut moments the audience will be familiar with in Jesus’ crucifixion in order to make parallels to the arcs of the other stories. However, Jesus’ story works best in these small doses, giving the audience thematic and contextual tie-ins to the stories Griffith wrote himself.
Likewise, the story of 16th century France is a rather marginal section of the film. It’s developed a bit more than the Jesus story, but isn’t given a whole lot of screen time. It’s for the best because while these events give Griffith a historical grounding for his tale, he’s able to use them as springboards for his own modern story and the Babylon story which are the cornerstone of his grand tale.
Both present two different skills of the director. The modern story shows Griffith’s ability to weave an involving human drama with escalating events that compose a melodramatic arc brought to full fruition. He’s able to perfectly place each actor in the story to fulfill a certain action or help escalate or dissipate a certain situation.
The Babylon story displays Griffith’s ability to make an epic of scale. The famous Babylon battle is a truly impressive sequence in terms of the logistical and technical achievement. The number of extras and the size of the sets are breathtaking and realizing how precise certain effects must be in order to pull off something of this scale is a testament to the technicians and production workers that developed the iconic movie set.
And while it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the scale of the film, the film is grounded in some wonderful and charming performances. Mae Marsh as The Dear One in the modern story is able to pull off the playful charm of youth and then the growing concern of a distraught wife in the later sections of her story.
Constance Talmadge shows up in two of the stories and she’s best as The Mountain Girl in the Babylonian story. She plays a spunky young woman who refuses the affections of one of the town’s poets and falls for the king of Babylon, sneaking into battle with the men when Cyrus’ army threatens to ransack the city of Babylon.
The film’s large, thematic ideas are still as relevant as they were almost a century ago. Especially with the advent of the Internet, it’s easy to see an overwhelming amount of people expressing intolerance against almost every possible human group imaginable. Griffith asks that one consider love a much more powerful and elegant solution, although he’s quick to observe that history shows that it’s not an easy path.
© 2012 James Blake Ewing