Movie Review: Intolerance (1916)


Note: This is #1 of my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

Wow, what a movie to start this thing off on. Released in 1916, Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages is film pioneer D.W. Griffith’s sprawling silent movie epic about how much intolerance really totally sucks. The film actually combines 4 different stories and links them together through transitions. This includes a “modern” story set in 1914 about a bunch of puritains trying to ruin everyone’s fun through their intoleance for anything but their brand of morality, a story set during the French Renaissance where religious intolerance between Protestants and Catholics leads to a massacre, the story of Christ’s crucifixion during the Judean era, and the fall of ancient Babylon brought on by conflicts between worshipers of different religious sects.

Instead of presenting each story sequentially, Griffith weaves the stories together and draws on common themes to show how humanity’s best must suffer and withstand humanity’s worst. In the beginning of the movie, the transitions are more measured and far apart as the filmmaker sets the stage (literally) for each of the four stories. He even does this weird thing where some woman is rocking a cradle symbolic of human civilization or something, which to me seemed like so much art house wankery. He even includes snippets of poetry by Walt Whitman, and as everyone knows, I HATE WALT WHITMAN. As things reach their climaxes the cuts become more frequent and you can see how the events of each of the stories run parallel to each other and otherwise relate.

Sounds grand, but I don’t see how Intolerance could be a movie anyone would recommend except as an academic exercise in film history. It’s mildly interesting the way looking at a Bronze Age tool or an ancient sandal in a museum is mildly interesting. You think “Huh, that was probably pretty cool at the time, sure is old now” and you shuffle on to the next exhibit. Only I couldn’t do that, because Intolerance was almost three freaking hours long.

And indeed, I can see how this movie was a groundbreaking achievement that served as a template for decades to come. I get that. While I was amused at how the actors and director were often shackled to the traditions of stage plays (e.g., wildly exaggerated facial expressions, florid and almost spastic body movement, extreme lighting, etc.), if you kept in mind that this thing was made in 1916 you start to notice things that were probably novel and even ingenious, like close-up shots of pocket watches or crane shots of city streets. Even the transitions between the four parallel stories would have been something utterly impossible to do on a stage. And apparently Griffith even bankrupted his own studio by financing huge wardrobes and set scenes replete with authentic looking buildings and exotic animals like camels, elephants, and ducks. I can imagine viewers really being amazed by that stuff at the time.

But I wasn’t. The fact is that I personally found it practically unwatchable, thanks in no small part to how the quality of the surviving footage gave me a huge headache. Entire areas of scenes are blown out to the point of being burning white blobs, the quality of the rest of the picture is grainy to the point of distraction, a lot of the text in the intertitles is completely illegible, and honestly I found that the stories were goofy at best and incoherent at worst. I appreciate Intolerance as ground breaking film making, but it was a complete pain to watch in 2009.

Others doing the 52-in-52 thing this week:

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7 thoughts on “Movie Review: Intolerance (1916)

  1. D. W. Griffith. Birth of a Nation. EW. I had to watch BON (Ew) in college. Twice. EW. The first time was for Black Lit class, the second for Film class. I can’t forgive the racism in favor of the seminal cinematographic scholarship. Blech.

  2. Patti: Yep, I haven’t seen BON, but I’ve heard about it.
    David: Yep, Netflix. A lot of the ones on my list are even available on their “watch it now” service, which lets you stream them to your computer. Or, if you have an Xbox 360 and an Xbox Live Gold subscription, you can stream them to that and watch on your TV.

  3. Did you really watch the whole thing? I saw part of it and if you did, my hat is off to you. I think I would have been driven into some sort of convulsion given all of the flickering and bad images!

  4. Jamie, dude, you just don’t GET Intolerance.
    Just kidding. I enjoyed the honesty. Keep it up, and I’ll lend you that filthy DW Griffith technical masterpiece if you ever want to see what the hoopla is about. While the racism is blatant and indeed repulsive, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be studied to be viewed in a historical context (both cinematically and as a part of American history).

  5. Well, I won’t claim to have watched EVERY second of it, but let me put it this way: it did play all the way through on my DVD player. Even if I happened to multitask a bit towards the end, I think I got pretty much the full experience.

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