director D.W. Griffith
viewed: 10/05/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA
My first ever film class in 1986 was really quite a fine class. We watched a number of great films, great standard film school type films, a truly good primer on cinema studies.
It was in this film class that I learned about D.W. Griffith and saw his 1916 epic Intolerance for the first time. My teacher has alluded to The Birth of a Nation (1915), Griffith’s troublingly racist masterpiece and landmark in world cinema, but deferred from showing it. He did later show us Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935), so he wasn’t merely eluding controversy or problematic films of significance.
Since, I have really come around to Griffith and the Silent Era of film. I recall being very struck by Broken Blossoms (1919) in a graduate film class and have come to really have enjoyed his Sally of the Sawdust (1925) as well. I also finally saw The Birth of a Nation. But I hadn’t actually had a chance to see Intolerance again all these years.
So when a new print was showing at the Castro, I stepped out of an over-warm afternoon into the cooler confines on San Francisco’s best cinema to reconnect with a film I hadn’t seen in nearly 30 years.
When you’ve made a commercially successful film based on a racist story of the rise of the KKK as the protection of American values, you come under a lot of flak. Griffith sought to meet his critics in this massive epic about religious, racist, societal intolerance, trying to show that he was not such a bad guy after all. He focuses on four narratives, one about the fall of ancient Babylon, one the crucifixion of Christ, another about a slaughter of Protestants in Renaissance France, and a contemporary tale of would-be do-gooder Christians who are intolerant of booze, dancing, and poverty.
Notably, he doesn’t at all address more glaring racial issues. And it’s the Jewish Pharisees that are the ones intolerant of Christ and his teachings of love.
So as far as redressing his wrongs, it’s highfalutin’ hogwash.
But as epic cinema it is something unparalleled.
The sets of the Babylonian palace are so massive that they are hard to fully fathom. Thousands of extras populate these massive sets, dwarfed by statuary and the incredible detail therein to evoke this ancient time.
It’s little wonder that the film focuses so much on the Babylonian story. You put that much into a set, you better spend more than a quarter of your film on it.
But the film originated with the contemporary story, expanded into the bigger visions, but still lingering on the two tales that had more going from the plot angle, the oldest and the most modern.
But as what Griffith had perfected in his early short films, his build up to a climax, including racing vehicles: trains, chariots, horses, battles, cross-cutting back and forth to drive up the drama. This is where the film succeeds the best.
It’s an enormous film, enormously long, enormously built, cast, and enormously ambitious. Also enormously Christian in its core and morality. Didactic beyond a fault. But for all of the things one could cast as aspersions in its way, its monumentality and ambition still prove it out as one of the most significant films of its time by one of the most important innovators in cinema of all time. It’s flaws, as in Griffith’s flaws, are all part of the portrait, impossible to deny, are aspects that must be appreciated, absorbed, taken as part of its already voluminous whole and kept utterly in mind.