Monday, January 1, 2018

Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages

I finally watched Intolerance off my DVR. It's available on DVD in several version, so I don't have a problem doing a full-length post on it.

Director D.W. Griffith made this one following Birth of a Nation, a film controversial for its depictions of black people and its perceived parise of the Ku Klux Klan, which was comparatively moribund until Birth of a Nation helped enable the renewed Klan of the 1920s. Griffith decided he was going to make a movie to answer his critics, and Intolerance is the result.

The structure of Intolerance involves parallel stories in four time periods, all showing how hate and a haughty spirit among those with power can lead to disastrous consequences. In chronological order, those four stories are set in the Babylonia of Prince Belshazzar; the Israel of Jesus; 16th century France, and the then present of 1916. The two middle stories should be well known to anybody who's studied history or grown up in a majority-Christian country.

As for the modern story, that's the most interesting part. It involves a bunch of women who decide to go on a moral crusade, calling themselves "uplifters". The leader of the "uplifters" is a spinster who guilts her brother into giving them the money for their actions. The brother owns a factory, and the money he spends causes the factory to become unprofitable, so he takes actions that lead to a strike and all the workers getting fired. The Girl (Mae Marsh) is the daughter of one of the workers who dies in the strike; she meets The Boy (Robert Harron) who after losing his job is forced into a life of crime. He gets sent to jail, she gets their child taken away from her, and so on and so on, leading up to a chase sequence to stop an execution.

I have to admit I was decidedly underwhelmed by Intolerance. The movie made it on the last AFI list of 100 greatest American movies released about a decade ago. I can't help but think, however, but that was largely a response to the previous AFI list back in 1999. Birth of a Nation was on that list, and frankly Birth of a Nation is a much better movie regardless of the political message it carries. But just as Griffith wanted to respond to his critics, I've always gotten the impression that Intolerance replaced Birth of a Nation on the AFI list because critics wanted to make a point about the terribleness of Birth of a Nation

What's the problem with Intolerance? There are a couple. Short shrift is given to two of the stories, the Jesus one and the Huguenot one. In general this would be a problem, but when you have a movie running over three hours you'd think they could come up with a narrative that gives enough time for all four stories. The bigger problem, however, is that the movie is didactic, and Griffith has no qualms about beating us over the head with his point about how horrible intolerance is. We get the point already. The melodramatic nature of the modern story is also a bit of a problem. Even with that, however, the movie probably would have worked better with just the modern story and the Babylonian story; I'm reminded of Noah's Ark which only had two stories as well. Or even more dramatically just make a standard and normal length movie about the present day story.

And yet there are good things about Intolerance, mostly in the Babylon sets. Those are spectacularly outsized, as befits a movie that was conceived as having an epic budget. You can imagine Cecil B. DeMille remembering this movie when he made the silent version of The Ten Commandments, and then thinking of it again when he made the sound version of The Ten Commandments that we all remember. The movie also has effective use of intercutting, especially in the climax. Griffith had learned this technique well from Birth of a Nation.

Would I recommend this movie? I think Intolerance is one of those movies that should be seen once, but that probably shouldn't stand as an all-time great.

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