Intolerance (1916)

The Birth of a Nation (1915) will stand as both D.W. Griffith's greatest cinematic achievement and greatest contribution to the nascent film industry, despite its incendiary depiction of blacks and the Reconstruction. Griffith's next film, Intolerance: Love's Struggle Through the Ages (1916), is a fascinating, poetical conceit of a motion picture that weaves together four separate stories, all of which relate in some fashion to persecution and, well, intolerance. The four tales -- the fall of Babylon, the crucifixion of Jesus, the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre and a contemporary story of class warfare and social injustice in America -- exist on that hoary and impressionistic plane that is silent film but are not lacking in dramatic pull or emotional currency. The film is compelling and cunningly crafted. Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, Josephine Crowell and Lillian Gish star but Griffith paints on a large canvas, with enormous, elaborate sets and casts of thousands. The sweep of this film is indeed epic, with battling helmeted hordes and chariotted marauders. It is quite the spectacle. Still, I'm not entirely sold on the elegiac tone of much of the film; it seems too grandly earnest and it clashes with the elysian vision at the end.  Also, if this was indeed Griffith's response to charges he stoked the flames of oppression with Birth of a Nation, it strikes me as a little heavy-handed to use Jesus Christ as cover.


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