Intolerance (1916) – Film #0001

Directed by D. W. Griffith 
Inducted to the National Film Registry in 1989 
I first watched it on Jan. 12th 2021 

What It’s About:

The film portrays four different tales of intolerance during four different time periods: the fall of ancient Babylon, the life and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1500s France, and a “modern” (at the time) tale of intolerance that focuses largely on the life of hardship that one young woman experiences.

My experience with the film:

The story of how I went about watching this is in the “Availability” section below (largely because the film is somehow both easy and complicated to find), but, in general this marks my new trend of watching the NFR films roughly from the beginning of when the Registry started. I’ll still watch random films from later in the Registry here and there (largely for reasons that I’ll probably note), but many of the films that I watch for the next few months will be from among the 1989 and 1990 inductees to the Registry. 

With that out of the way, I should say that I’m both pleased and disappointed that my overall take on the film seems to align with commonly held views of the film. Pleased because I feel justified in my opinion (since it is shared by many others), disappointed because I don’t have much to say that hasn’t already been said. 

By far the most stunning (from a production point of view) segments of the film are the scenes that take place in Babylon. The sets, the costumes, and the sheer number of people have to be some of the most epic and extensive that I’ve ever seen in a film. It strongly reminds me of old epics like 1956’s The Ten Commandments, or even newer films like the Lord of the Rings trilogy (the battle scenes in this film are especially reminiscent of the sieges of Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith). If for no other reason, fans of massive film productions (like myself) should see this movie for the Babylon story alone. 

However, for fans of a good heart-felt character drama (also like myself), the most compelling storyline was the one in the “modern” day of 1916. The actress (Mae Marsh) who played the character “the Dear One” (many of the characters have nonspecific names like this) was great at initially playing her with youth and liveliness, and then later effectively portrayed her sorrow and desperation. Some might consider her performance to be over-acting, but that tended to be the style in silent films when actors had to convey the emotions of their characters with physicality alone. The writing (or I suppose I should say editing, since the director filmed most of this movie without a script) in the final parts of this storyline is particularly effective. I don’t want to spoil too much, but the Dear One’s husband (simply called “the Boy”) is about to be hanged for a murder that he didn’t commit, and the scenes leading up to the end were a roller coaster of suspense and emotion as the film kept me guessing as to whether he would actually be hung, or whether he would be saved at the last minute (you’ll have to watch for yourself to find out). 

However, the other two segments of the film didn’t really work for me. The scenes with “the Nazarene”, as He is called (I think they were uncomfortable with the idea of straight-up referring to Him as “Jesus” in movies back then, for some reason), are barely in the film (I think there were only 4 or 5), and while I get that they were there mainly to add to the titular theme of “intolerance” through the film (they specifically showed how the people were intolerant of Christ and various others, like the woman caught in adultery, back then), I feel like the film would have been fundamentally the same without them. It also seemed strangely weird to me to feature Christ in a film that also focused heavily on Babylon and their gods, and specifically seemed to paint the fall of Babylon as a tragic event, when Babylon is typically depicted as both a literal and figurative enemy in the Bible (especially the Old Testament). I honestly don’t know enough about ancient Babylon to have any kind of opinion on their civilization, I just found it somewhat ironic to have “Babylon” and “Jesus” be the “good guys” in the same movie, when the Bible paints their civilizations as opposing forces. 

Likewise, the scenes in renaissance France didn’t add much to the movie. These segments of the film were the hardest for me to follow largely due to a lack of any character development and because I think the movie expects you to be familiar with the story of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. I honestly don’t remember ever hearing about the event before this movie (not sure if I fell asleep that day in World History in high school, or if it was just never covered). The film does give you a character to root for in the form of a woman called “Brown Eyes”, but she doesn’t get nearly as much characterization as “the Dear One” or “the Mountain Girl” (the protagonist of the Babylon story). When they started killing all the Huguenots in France, I honestly wasn’t sure whether she had been killed or not yet until the intertitles finally mentioned her by “name”, as I honestly couldn’t really tell her apart from the background extras. 

Of course, the other elephant in the room (besides all of the elephants carved into the intricate sets of the Babylon era) is that of the director, D.W. Griffith. He made Intolerance as a follow up to his previous film “The Birth of a Nation,” a film that was not only the most financially successful American film ever up to that point in early cinema history, but also a film that was extremely controversial upon its release, and one that continues to be condemned even more strongly today. (And for good reason, it’s a deeply racist film, and one that is often credited with single-handedly bringing the KKK back into popularity.) “Intolerance”, on the other hand, is sometimes incorrectly seen as an “apology” for his previous film, but on the contrary, Griffith thought that the people who were upset with “Birth of a Nation” were the “intolerant” ones, and he made “Intolerance” to criticize the people that he felt were being intolerant toward him. Luckily, his racist sentiments don’t really seem present in the film, at least not overtly (aside from the fact that the Babylonians are played by white people, but that is an unfortunately common practice in Hollywood that still continues even to this day; see recent films like “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and “Gods of Egypt”). However, there are some strangely sexist vibes in the “modern” scenes, since it pretty blatantly says something along the lines of “unmarried women tend to become busybodies and hypocrites” in one of the intertitles (I’m heavily paraphrasing). These “busybodies” are the antagonists of the “modern” segment, and they end up doing some pretty cruel things. 

Availability:

This is where things get complicated. The short version is: it’s extremely easy to find on the internet, but there are several different versions of the film. This section on Wikipedia provides an overview of the four main restorations that are available, and also points out that there are many low-quality public domain options that are also available. I did not know about the different versions prior to watching it, and my original plan was to watch the DVD Netflix version, but it was such a poor quality transfer of the film (I’m assuming it was one of the public domain versions) that it was nearly impossible to read many of the intertitles (an absolute necessity for a silent film). After about 20 minutes of watching that version, I switched to the Kanopy version of the film (a free streaming service that is available through many local libraries), which had an extremely high quality image (it appears to be “The Official Thames Silents Restoration” mentioned on Wikipedia), and a score that was recorded specifically for this film (always a plus with silent films.) However, there was one scene that wouldn’t play (it would always just eternally load when I got to that scene). If I skipped past it, the rest of the film played fine, but that one scene never loaded. (I tried on two different devices.) So, I briefly switched to the Amazon version (which doesn’t seem to be any of the four versions mentioned on Wikipedia) to watch that scene, but then I decided to switch back after the scene was over, because I preferred the image quality and the score over on Kanopy (I had no additional issues after that one scene.) So, I suppose all of that is to say: good luck. I’d recommend the Kanopy version if you have access to it. Otherwise, Google it, and click around until you find a version that seems good enough to you (there are a few versions on YouTube, some of which are probably illegal uploads of the four different high-quality restorations). If you’re feeling especially enthusiastic, you can always buy The Official Thames Silents Restoration on Blu-ray.

To learn more about the history and significance of this film, I recommend the following resources:

For the complete list of films in the National Film Registry, including information on how you can view each film, and links to every entry that I have written, please see my NFR Directory

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