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1916 Seventy-five Years Ago

March 2023
1min read

Big-Screen Epic

Intolerance , D. W. Griffith’s three-and-a-half-hour epic illustrating the destructive folly of man through the ages, opened September 1. The year before, the director’s Birth of a Nation had brought him as much criticism for its racism as it had box-office success. This time he had turned a project about modern city life into a grand historical drama picturing the tragic instances of intolerance that brought down Babylon and led to the crucifixion of Christ and the massacre of Huguenots in sixteenth-century Paris. Before Intolerance was finished, Griffith proclaimed, “If I approach success in what I am trying to do in my coming picture, I expect an even greater persecution than that which met The Birth of a Nation .” He suffered worse than that: the silent confusion of the public and a massive personal debt from the film.

Intolerance presented four stories joined around the recurring image of Lillian Gish rocking an infant’s cradle, which the film maker borrowed from Walt Whitman’s “Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking, uniter of here and hereafter. …” Griffith meant his four plots to run gradually together “like four currents,” he explained, “until in the end, in the last act, they mingle in one mighty river of expressed emotion.”

The film had a sweeping look; Griffith’s budget was the biggest ever at the time. His Babylonian city—the grandest backdrop built in Hollywood—stretched a mile wide and three hundred feet in the air and was peopled by thousands of extras. Nevertheless, the same audiences that had thrilled to scenes of charging heroic Klansmen in Birth of a Nation found Griffith’s elaborate storytelling and anti-reformist message forbidding in 1916.

Griffith’s sheer ambition in creating the spectacle was not lost on later film makers such as Sergei Eisenstein and Cecil B. DeMiIIe. In addition to the simultaneous storytelling, the film pioneered other innovations, including shooting from an anchored balloon, a forerunner of the modern crane shot. Eventually Griffith released two of his narratives independently—one of BeIshazzar and the fall of Babylon, the other about modern American slum life—but he was still paying off Intolerance in the 1920s.

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