Sunday, March 9, 2008


Okay. Intolerance. The nearly-three-hour silent epic by D.W. Griffith that the American Film institute put on their "100 Greatest American Films" list after deciding that Birth of a Nation had to come off.

It's not that good. I can understand why the AFI pulled Birth of a Nation, because it's kind of hard to watch a movie in which the KKK is portrayed as heroic defenders of the Southern way of life and African Americans are portrayed as subhuman animals. It's kind of interesting to note that the actual black people in that movie are standing around in the background looking perfectly normal; it's the lead characters, played by white guys in blackface, that are the cartoonish buffoons.

Anyway. Intolerance contains four different stories: Modern Day, Babylon, France, and Jesus. The movie cuts back and forth between the stories in an almost random fashion, occasionally interspersing things with a shot of a woman (Lillian Gish!) rocking a baby in a cradle.

The Jesus story doesn't amount to much: we see a miracle or two and the crucifixion. The France story is a little more complex and involves Catherine de Medici plotting against the Huguenots, which results in a big attack on Paris and the virtuous girl heroine being killed by the mercenary soldier that she spurned.

The Babylon story is pretty impressive. It has elephants and camels and a leopard and enormous sets and hundreds of extras. It also has a moving crane shot that is extremely advanced for its time. Oh, and topless women in the Babylonian Orgy scene, but it's not as good as it sounds.

The Modern Day story starts out with a factory owner whose wife falls in with Uplifters (dour old women who, no longer being attractive to men, go around improving people's moral lives by taking away everything the enjoy -- it's not a subtle movie), so the factory owner starts underwriting the charitable activities so much that he has to cut wages by 10%. Then there's a worker's strike, a lot of workers get shot, and everybody moves to a new city. The Virtuous Girl (called "Dear One" here) has a baby but the father gets framed by the mob and while he's in jail the Uplifters take the baby -- it's all very melodramatic. It has a happy ending in which the father is saved from the gallows after a scene in which a car races a train. This part was released separately, as The Mother and the Law, because there's no sense letting a perfectly good melodrama go to waste.

If you look around the world of movie reviewers, you will see things like "Many reviewers and film historians consider [Intolerance] the greatest film of the silent era." I think that's crazy. It's nowhere as good as even Wings, let alone The General. And does City Lights count as the Silent Era? In my opinion, this is people who are A) dazzled by the sweeping epic-ness (and it is an impressive achievement), and B) looking for a D.W. Griffith movie that they can praise without feeling gross like when you mention Birth of a Nation. Just because it was expensive and features intercutting doesn't make it great. For one thing, the intercutting doesn't help; it's at the expense of all the stories.

The real killer is that although Intolerance acts like a morally instructive film, I can't really tell what point it's trying to make. Yes, about half the title cards include the word "intolerance" in various forms (for example, the guy in the Modern Story gets "intolerated into jail"), but . . . what? The Babylon story isn't about intolerance; it's about Babylon being attacked. The Jesus story isn't really about anything, since I don't remember a scene between Water-into-Wine and Pontius Pilate. The France story is sort of about Catholics vs. Huguenots, I guess, and the Modern story is vaguely about uptight do-gooders, but it doesn't hang together.

The Babylon story was released separately as The Fall of Babylon in 1919. Unfortunately, it's not available, so you might have to watch the three-hour version. Well, you don't have to. If you want to give it a shot, you have my permission to read a book or something when the non-Babylon parts are happening. No one will know.

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