Film Review: Intolerance (1916)

I’m doing a film review today, and the film I have chosen is one of the great silent epics of American cinema: David Wark Griffith’s Intolerance (1916). Yes, you read the name and title correctly, and I don’t blame you for questioning them: after all, if you are familiar with Griffith’s work at all, you’re likely only familiar with Birth of a Nation (1915), and thus, thanks to the public school system, you have no reason to think of D.W. Griffith as anything other than THE WORST. PERSON. EVER! And possibly (if your teacher bothered to explain this to you) somebody who pioneered many technical aspects of film-making (effective night time photography, continuity editing, and the seemingly simple act of actually moving the cameras), but mainly the WORST. PERSON. EVER!

I was a member of this camp until I developed an interest in silent film in my senior year of high school and continuing into my college years. Lo and behold, not only did I discover that Griffith’s career didn’t begin and end with Birth of a Nation, but in fact, most of his other films are more palatable to modern tastes (I’m not going to address Steve Sailer’s possibility that the powers that be, currently looping around the political spectrum to the point where they resemble Victorian Church Ladies, might come to praise BoN for addressing the rape culture of the late 1860s, but you can rest assured that I have an enormous shit-eating grin on my face as I write this parenthetical sentence of mockery).

What do I mean by “more palatable by modern tastes”? Try something like A Corner in Wheat (1909), a short film that heavily criticizes financiers who corner and crash the commodities market (cereals in this case, as the title would imply), hurting the working man. Exploitation of commodities trading and the rights of laborers are, of course, something that the modern leftist will briefly claim to be concerned with before spending hours screaming about intersectionality, made-up sexual identities, giving amnesty to illegal immigrants that hate everything they stand for, and celebrating any corporation that puts on a thin veneer of being “cool”.

Quite honestly, I’m surprised SJWs haven’t been lauding Griffith, considering that Broken Blossoms (1919) is quite possibly the first interracial romance ever featured on screen (or at the very least the first positively portrayed one in any feature film). AND it’s a minority man with a white woman (ignore the fact that the male lead is a white man in makeup). Hell, when was the last time you saw an Asian man with a white woman in a film made TODAY? So much for the inexorable march of progress…

But if there’s one thing you can count on the progressives doing, it’s that these great arbiters of high culture have absolutely no intellectual curiosity whatsoever, and will do anything to avoid having their opinions challenged.

So, having shown you that Griffith wasn’t the slobbering racist monster you undoubtedly think he was (and in some respects was more “progressive” than the bowl of fruits and nuts that makes up the modern left), perhaps you can pick your jaw off the floor and continue reading about Intolerance.

Released in 1916, this 3 and a half hour epic, THE SUN PLAY FOR THE AGES, was at the time the most expensive film ever made (2 million dollars, most of that presumably going to construct the absolutely breathtaking sets and pay the thousands of extras), and was, unfortunately, not financially successful, despite rave reviews, largely due to the audience’s confusion at the asynchronous storytelling and editing techniques (if people had trouble understanding Cloud Atlas (2012), imagine how hard it was to grasp this style of editing almost 100 years prior…despite the fact that Griffith explained this technique in the opening title cards).

Indeed, the plot of Intolerance is 4 stories that are told in parallel, cutting back and forth between each other and each dealing with intolerance in some fashion (more accurately, the four stories all deal with cultural and/or religious intolerance, and yes, I KNOW somebody’s going to start squawking about Birth of a Nation again. Shut up). These four stories are The Fall of Babylon (539 BC), the Crucifixion (30 AD), the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572 AD), and “The Mother and the Law” (a contemporary piece, contemporary meaning the 1910s). Notably, in three of the four stories, religion is explicitly used in some way or another as a tool for oppression…which leads one to assume that Griffith feels the oppressors in the fourth story, despite not being an explicitly religious organization, are equally fanatical to the religious organizations in the other three.

Of the four, the two longest stories are the Babylon one and the modern one (both were later re-released as standalone features), but in many ways (at least in my interpretation of the film), Griffith seems to be setting up the Babylon story to the French story as counterpoints to each other (both deal with two established religions clashing), and the Crucifixion story is compared to the modern story (both deal with the government allying with a religious or pseudo-religious organization to oppress the common man)

The film opens up with the contemporary story, where we see a group of frumpy society ladies seeking to “uplift” the surrounding culture…but lacking the funds to do so. As luck would have it, Ms. Jenkins is a wealthy spinster that glowers at pretty girls being taken to dance by their menfolk, and the working men and women enjoying their beer and dancing. A title card states “Age intolerant of youth and joy, the vestal virgins of uplift get paid”. And of course, moral crusaders seeking to ban or “reform” types of music are not extinct today. Indeed, Ms. Jenkins and the “Uplifters” are very much proto-SJWs, and the implication is that they are this way because they themselves are unhappy.

“But the temperance movement was predominantly made of right-wing Christians!” you might be arguing: wrong. The old-timey WASP progressives of the early 20th century pushed prohibition alongside women’s suffrage, the income tax, and, uh…eugenics (thankfully, Griffith didn’t depict this in his film, and by thankfully, I mean “unfortunately”.)

Then in a complete coincidence, it directly cuts from the temperance biddies to the Crucifixion story, in which we see the Pharisees loudly proclaiming their piety (ie: literally claiming they are “holier than thou”). When they pray, they demand that everybody stop what they are doing and accede to their demands. Shortly afterwards, the factory owner in modern times decides to cut his employee’s vacation time and wages. “Meddlers then and now, decide there is too much pleasure amongst the people”, the title cards say, another explicit comparison between the Pharisees and the progressives. Amusingly, the biddies successfully ban drinking and dancing and are later seen raiding a brothel, which leads to the intercard “when women fail to attract men, they turn to Reform as a second choice”. Shots fired!

Speaking of shots being fired, the workers go on strike and the progressives pressure the government to send in strike breakers, and shots are literally fired (but surely progressives of today care about the white working class and would never lobby the government to take actions that hurt them…right?) Our heroes for this segment, “The Boy” and “The Dear One” (the latter is a woman) have to move into the slums, and over the course of about an hour, the Boy is dragged into a life of crime, meets the Dear One, they become an item, the boy goes clean, he gets framed for a crime by his former criminal friend, and he is railroaded through the progressive-led justice system. The Uplifters also find time to take the Dear One’s baby away because her husband is in prison and thus she’s an unfit mother (finally, a difference between then and now: single mothers are celebrated today). The story builds to its climax as the Boy is scheduled to be executed for his alleged crimes, but now we must leave for now and look at the other two segments:

The Babylon segment is interesting because in many ways, Constance Talmadge’s character, “The Mountain Girl”, is the TOUGH BITCH RIOT GRRRRL character that Anita Sarkeesian demands we portray more often (yes, in 1916!) Observe how the Rhapsode, a poet and troubadour of the temple of Marduk, makes a pass at our heroine, but she rebuffs him, being a strong independent Babylonian woman who don’t need no man. Briefly mentioned is a tiff between the priest of Marduk and the priest of Ishtar, before cutting back to Mountain Girl being forcibly dragged to the market for a husband. This is clearly seen as a negative, and the fact that an old-timey American WASP would portray this scene shows that the charges of “traditional American sexism” are full of crap.

Observe how she is told “THE MARRIAGE BLOCK IS NO PLACE FOR ONIONS” but she does it anyway because fuck proper decorum. She is rebuffed on the marriage block, and roars “YOU LICE! YOU RATS! THERE IS NO GENTLER DOVE IN BABYLON THEN I!”, as she juts her chin out like Mussolini. While this was probably intended to be humorous at the time, this has essentially become SOP for Western women today. She then sees the man for her passing through the market: it’s Prince Belshazzar, who is unfortunately married. Also, note a brief cut away to full frontal nudity in the Prince’s harem. Indeed, despite the antiquity of the setting, the Babylon segment is highly modern in its film-making: strong heroines (strong to the point of honestly being kind of unlikable until she develops as a character, which is something the progressives celebrate as long as you don’t use mean words to describe it) and dignified nudity are often claimed to be absent from American film today by the SJWs, and look how well both were being done in 1916.

Meanwhile in Babylon, the priest of Marduk, seeking to consolidate his power over the cult of Ishtar, collaborates with the invading Persians. Comparisons are then drawn to the French story, and bubbling tensions between Protestants and Catholics (the latter of whom have the support of the crown).

Battle comes to Babylon and Mountain Girl fights. The Babylonians win the first sally, so the priest of Marduk dupes the Rhapsode into opening the gates for Cyrus’ armies. There is some hinting that Mountain Girl may be developing affection for the Rhapsode, perhaps because she can’t have Belshazzar, and they apparently get together, intercut with the Catholics preparing to purge the Huguenots. Simultaneously, we see the Dear One desperately trying to get a stay of execution for her husband, a brutal massacre of thousands of Huguenots, and Jesus being nailed to the cross.

As the film simultaneously hurtles to four separate climaxes, the Babylon and France segments end badly, with division between sects successfully used as a tool for oppression and intolerance.  The execution of the Lamb of God is of course a bittersweet ending for the world, but our contemporary heroes fight and scrounge and ultimately get that happy ending.

Looking at all four stories as a whole, what is to be said about them? Considering that the French story is a standard (albeit very well made) story of star-crossed lovers and clashing religious sects, we instead look to the other three, as they contain much greater implications for the modern day (the one truly stand out line from the St. Bartholomew’s story is when Catherine de Medici states ‘What a wonderful man. If only he thought as we do’. The relevance to this discussion should be obvious).

As stated above, the strikingly modern touches of the  Babylon segment debunk the oft-cited claims of “evil stuffy puritanical traditional America that needs to be completely revamped”. But more than anything else, the modern segment is relevant to us today: for Griffith looked at the proto-social justice warriors of his day, and drew the same conclusions about them that we do for their modern descendants. And in comparing them to the vainglorious, hypocritical Pharisees, he may very well have be the spiritual predecessor to any red-piller that uses the term “Cathedral” to describe the current Powers that Be-a fitting term because they are just as fanatical about their beliefs as the worst religious person.

The ending of the modern segment, the only truly happy one, would suggest that, in Griffith’s eyes, despite their fanaticism, the progressives are weaker than the religions of the past, and victory over them is possible if you work really hard at it.

Beyond the story, everything else in the film is solid, if not spectacular: the set designs, the pacing, the special effects (I am of course judging in comparison to other films from the time period). Quite frankly, much of this film gels with what modern leftists claim to believe: as for why they don’t fete this movie and instead seek to  bury D.W. Griffith in the sands of time…perhaps it’s because deep down, they know that they are represented in the film not as the oppressed, but as the oppressor. Or perhaps it’s because seeing a 100 year old film that is strikingly modern in its attitudes and viewpoints would cause them enough cognitive dissonance to give them an aneurysm. Or maybe it’s because they were told by their professors that D.W. Griffith was nothing more than a terrible awful racist, and had no desire to ever see anything that said otherwise. I’d guess an intersection of all three.

In short, a little melodramatic, but highly recommended nonetheless. And the best part is: it’s free, and can be easily found on the interwebs.