Or, The AFI List Project #49: Intolerance
You’ve probably heard of D.W. Griffith, because he directed one of the most famous — and justly infamous — films of all time. It was the first cinematic epic, the first blockbuster, and also, despite James Cameron’s best efforts, the most unashamedly racist movie ever.
That movie was called Birth of a Nation, and it is not the work by Griffith that made its inevitable way onto the 2007 edition of the AFI’s Top 100 list (though it was #44 on the 1998 list). I can only assume that the reason for this is that voters balked at naming a movie glorifying the Ku Klux Klan as a seminal element of America’s cinematic heritage. Hence Intolerance got the metaphorical call instead, a movie that Griffith directed a year later and that, in being a silent, more-than-three-hours-long epic, bears at least a superficial resemblance to Birth. In fact, Intolerance was at least partly made as Griffith’s response to criticisms about the racial politics of the earlier movie.
That knowledge lends a surreal character to the experience of watching Intolerance, which is a self-declared exploration of the negative effects of intolerance throughout human history; essentially, Griffith is lambasting his critics for being intolerant of his own intolerance. Regardless, the movie must be interrogated for what it is, and that is a three-and-a-half-hour silent movie weaving together four parallel storylines that sound (silent?) forth on a shared theme. Each of these stories comes from a different era of history, and each has as its subject the failure of tolerance in a different epoch: the fall of ancient Babylon, the massacre of the Huguenots in the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, and a twentieth-century story of the negative impact caused by Puritanical reformers, with snippets from the life of Christ thrown in for good measure. At first, intercutting between stories is sparse and each proceeds at its own pace, but as the movie proceeds and the stories come closer and closer to their inevitable conclusions, Griffith moves between them with ever-increasing rapidity.
I’ve noted in the past that I have little patience for silent movies, and combined with its fearsome run time that meant that I was unlikely to ‘enjoy’ Intolerance in the conventional sense. Still, the film is of interest in being the first example of a narrative film in which narrative turns out to not be the important thing. Griffith wants Intolerance to be didactic, to teach us about a theme rather than tell us a story: hence the title, which states without artifice what the movie is about. Nor does Griffith shy away from hammering his point home, with intertitles throughout explaining characters’ motives and directing interpretation of what is happening onscreen.
Plenty of movies want to make a point, of course, and most of them end up being pretty bad simply because they let their point get in the way of the truth of their story (see my article on ‘Fakers’ for more on this idea). Intolerance avoids that particular pitfall because it never claims to be telling a story, not really: it’s more a historical thesis than it is a narrative, and our judgment of its conclusion must therefore rest not on the truth of its story but on the truth of its history. And, for once, these are not the same thing, because, in each epoch represented, the ‘intolerance’ that is the connecting theme of the film is a part of the setting, rather than a part of the subject. In the segment on the fall of Babylon, for example, the ‘story’ is about a ‘Mountain Girl’ who falls in love with the prince of Babylon and, on discovering that the priests of Bel have betrayed the city to the Persians, vainly races to tell her prince about it. It may be the intolerance of the priests for the cult of Ishtar that creates the situation, but the plot revolves not around a conceptual victimization of the Mountain Girl at the hands of ‘intolerance’ but her concrete effort to race against time and warn her prince about the danger to the city.
The structure of Intolerance, with its four parallel stories centered on the same theme, bears some resemblance to a recently popular style of filmmaking that I have termed as ‘impressionistic’ because of the way that they seek to convey a rough idea of a concept or process that is outside the scope of a traditional narrative. The two best examples of this type, both of which emerged from the mind of screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, are Syriana and Traffic. Each of these movies sacrifices narrative in favor of a collage of interlocking stories in an effort to impart a general sense of the total meaning of a concept. In the case of Traffic, that concept is the drug trade, and the movie moves through a series of abbreviated, incomplete narratives to try to get at what the drug trade ‘is.’ Syriana is the same thing, just with oil instead of cocaine.
There is a significant difference, of course, in that the narrative lines of Syriana and Traffic are ‘horizontal’ while those of Intolerance are ‘vertical’: Griffith’s movie unites disparate stories across time by centering them on a recurrent theme, while Gaghan’s scripts deal with with the interlocking ripples of events happening at one time. The first is a ladder, the second a web. Nonetheless, the general principle is the same, as indeed it is with lighter fare like Love Actually: to create a movie that is about a concept rather than a story.
In its best moments, as in the montage of chases at the end of the movie, Griffith’s layering of the four stories increases the tension of the action, building suspense while also developing the parallels between the narrative lines. The problem that these movies create for themselves is that they have to meet two separate goals. In the first place, each of the substories has to be compelling, because if they are not the movie will lose the attention of its audience — especially when you consider that in order to effectively say anything meaningful, these movies have be quite long. Yet the filmmaker must do this while also putting forth a sound ‘academic’ argument — that is, as noted above, if Intolerance is to succeed, it must be able to convince us that intolerance was indeed the motivation behind each of the events that it portrays.
When the theme is love, as in Love Actually, a filmmaker has a lot of leeway, and no matter how incoherent some people may think that film is, it undeniably remains easy to watch because its goal is to be light. When dealing with more loaded material, though, the margin for error becomes increasingly slim. Traffic is probably about as good as any movie made with this structure has been to this point in history (unless we want to put The Battle of Algiers in the same category) but its dramatic needs still overcome its thematic ones in the end. Intolerance, meanwhile, puts forth the argument that past intolerances can be overcome through present enlightenment, but it never quite makes the leap to explain how. And, of course, any film constructed as an argument rather than a story runs the risk of seeming preachy, which, by way of Griffith’s maddening intertitles, Intolerance often does.
I don’t say this to take away from the ambition or originality of either Intolerance or Traffic, but to point out how the structure that gives these movies their raison d’etre can also work against them. In the case of Intolerance, it must be pointed out that it was made in 1916 and that it was – and arguably remains – the only movie to attempt this sort of vertical thematic exploration. For all its length, silence, and tiresome sermonizing, it still remains a window into the possibilities of a different kind of movie. I don’t know that that’s the kind of movie that I would want to see, but how will I know until it’s tried in a film that hasn’t become a historical oddity?