Many film buffs and critics can lay claim to have been so entertained and captivated by a movie that they herald it the Greatest Motion Picture Made on Earth. Many will tell you how Citizen Kane warrants this accolade. Others will refer to the work of many overseas film masters such as Kurosawa, Eisenstein or Lang. Those in musical vein might well be encapsulated by Singin' in the Rain or Astaire and Rogers in Top Hat. Many true film buffs salute Casablanca. In more recent times some modern audiences would even cite Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings epic as the greatest achievement in the 100-plus years of movie history. But for me, the only film that could fit that title is D.W. Griffith's Intolerance.
Griffith's inspiration for making the film came about from a combination of circumstances that prevailed in the months following the release of his most sensational motion picture of the time, The Birth of a Nation. It was a ground-breaking moment in the history of motion pictures, a fantastic large scale epic which took the form of not and hour or two in the nickelodeon (in those days the average film lasted 20 minutes with a full supporting programme of other short films), but a whole evening's entertainment before respectable audiences in lavish theatres. It gave cinema respectability, and in many ways invented movies in the form that we know them today. The story was a stirring one, of the American Civil War and the effects it had on the lives of the losing Southerners (twenty years before the whole world was swooning over Gone with the Wind) with some marvellous battle scenes. But also, most controversially, Griffith's film had depicted the negro populace of America in grossly caricatured style, in a film which embodied the Ku Klux Klan as heroes. Naturally therefore, the eruption of anti-racist feeling throughout America, even for those days, overwhelmed Griffith, who viewed the enormous furore about his misunderstood film as a gargantuan example of intolerance by man towards his fellow man.
And so began his personal crusade against the intolerants of the world, which due to the success of Birth, would have to be even bigger and more audacious (but thankfully less radical) than before. Using the unused footage from The Mother and the Law, a film which he had already started shooting before The Birth of a Nation, Griffith used this modern story as the main thrust of the narrative for Intolerance, and interspersed it with three other stories to illustrate the same concurrent theme, of the pain and anguish suffered by benevolent families and individuals when persecuted by other factions, governments and armies throughout the centuries.
Linking all these strands together, Griffith used the motif of a child's cradle rocking constantly, as if to embody the shakiness and the preciousness of life itself, and he cast one of his most popular leading ladies, Lillian Gish, as the eternal mother figure watching over the cradle, in a sequence that only took two hours to film, but features at constant intervals throughout the movie.
Naive it certainly was - as indeed was The Birth of a Nation - but Griffith never compromised either his motives or his style. The peculiarity in which he targets women's progressive movements and individual sneering villains would seem odd even in those days, but the way in which he blended the emotions together, resulting in a climax where the four stories come to their dramatic head, in a sequence which became known as the world's first and only "film fugue", was quite astounding.
Taking the four stories in isolation, they would seem mundane, but linked together it gave a grandness and a scope that had never been attained in motion pictures before, or since.
The first story, the modern tale taken from The Mother and the Law, told the fairly minor tale of two young lovers, played by Robert Harron and the captivating Mae Marsh, Griffith's perennial little girl innocent, who on her day could be as brilliant as Mary Pickford and more. Harron was also a very popular leading man at the time, whose name is forgotten nowadays because of his tragic early death in 1920. The young lovers meet in the (unnamed) big city and marry, but are beset by injustice and cruelty by both gangsters and the system, which wrongly convicts "the boy" for murder and deprives "the little one" of her only child. Amongst the other players were Miriam Cooper as the jealous mistress of the gangster who has deserted her for the little one, and resorts to murder when the going gets rough. The gangster (a "musketeer of the slums") was played with characteristic brutishness by Walter Long, a few years before he was about to strike equal terror into the hearts of Laurel & Hardy, to rather more comic effect. In the famous climactic chase where a racing car intercepts a speeding train (and stops right across the track), the driver of the car was played by one Tod Browning, who later terrified the world as a director himself with horror flicks such as Dracula and Freaks.
The second and most celebrated of the four stories of Intolerance, was the chronicling of the siege of Babylon by the Persian forces of Cyrus, brought about (according to Griffith's version of events) by the betrayal of Belshazzar by the High Priests of Bel in favour of Cyrus. The sequence in which the city celebrates with an almighty feast after the first initial defeat of the Persians (prior to the betrayal) was one of the great moments of cinema as the camera craned down from the skies overlooking the elephant-lined towers to the massed throng of dancers gathered down below.
Walter Paget played the mighty and benevolent King Belshazzar, and the stunning Seena Owen played his majestic queen, and best of all came Constance Talmadge who brought a very pugnacious human quality to her role as a feisty, sword-wielding, arrow fighting soldier-like loyal servant to the Babylonian prince, and helped greatly to make the ancient setting relatable to modern audiences. Amongst the extras in this huge Babylonian entourage were Mildred Harris - a teenage actress who gained notoriety a few years later when she married Charlie Chaplin - as one of the vestal virgins, and Douglas Fairbanks as one of the soldiers, then unknown and practically an extra in the film, but highly athletic with a huge star career of his own just around the corner.
Third of the stories was the massacre of several millions of Huguenots on St. Bartholomew's Day in 17th century France, brought about by the wily Machiavellian schemes of Catherine de Medici. Even Griffith was honest to admit this was the least memorable of the four stories. Nonetheless, the piece was wonderfully staged and dressed, and the tragedy was well put across thanks to the two central figures persecuted in the massacre, two Huguenot sisters, one of whom (Margery Wilson) has a lover with "the badges of safety", played by a lean and young looking Eugene Pallette, two decades before he settled into portlier character roles such as Friar Tuck in The Adventures of Robin Hood.
Rounded off by a fourth story which was basically a collection of bible scenes leading to the crucifixion (featuring, as one of the high priests persecuting Jesus, an unknown but sinister looking actor named Erich Von Stroheim, who also assisted Griffith in some of the direction), to give the movie a traditional semi-biblical context, the whole enterprise was a gargantuan effort, which deserved the success that it never attained.
Well, possibly because, like Citizen Kane in 1941, it was a film too far ahead of its time. Audiences of today might be sophisticated enough to understand the narrative thrust of cross-cutting all four stories to embody Griffith's message, but in 1916 audiences were still rather accustomed to the stodgy uncinematic approach of one scene after another as if in a stage play, and found Intolerance all too baffling because of its surreal juxtaposition from one story and one lifetime to another. Original versions of the film had run to a mammoth 8 hours, and Griffith was desperate at the time to cut the length down to a more manageable level to make it accessible for general audiences.
Needless to say, it was a fruitless exercise; no amount of cutting would make Intolerance the success he wanted it to be, and together with America's increasing anti-pacifist movement during World War I - which contrasted greatly with Griffith's final Utopian message of a peaceful world - shortly before America entered the war, as well as the lawsuits flying in all directions about Birth, Griffith would spend most of the rest of his years in between films battling both the lawyers and his own financial constraints. He died on the verge of bankruptcy in 1948.
But his films, in particular this one, still remain as his lasting legacy. At the heart of Intolerance one can see not only the brilliance of Griffith's craft at work, but also his heart and soul being poured onto the screen in quite epic fashion. In later years it became the inspiration of all the major epic film makers in Hollywood and around the world. Figures such as Cecil B. de Mille, Sergei Eisenstein, Erich Von Stroheim, Irving Thalberg, David O. Selznick, Jack Warner, John Ford, Akira Kurosawa, David Lean, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Peter Jackson, and even Walt Disney, would not have found the creative energy to make their own epics without the inspiration of Griffith's talent behind them. It is possibly the greatest film ever made simply because it inspired the next 90 years of movies themselves.
To that therefore, Intolerance is a testimony not necessarily to the hatred and intolerance through the world as intended, but a tribute to the vision and sincerity of Griffith himself.