BOOTLEG FILES 266 “Intolerance” (1916 D.W. Griffith epic).
LAST SEEN: The film can be found online.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: In public domain dupes only.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A long-expired copyright.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Anyone who can get their hands on a print can make it available.
At the risk of being contradictory, I have to acknowledge that I never liked D.W. Griffith’s 1916 epic “Intolerance.” Yes, I recognize it is a masterwork of filmmaking and a landmark in the development of motion picture production. But at the same time, the film always left me cold and indifferent at an emotional level.
“Intolerance” was made after Griffith’s unprecedented success with the 1915 release of “The Birth of a Nation.” Had Griffith never made the film – indeed, had Griffith been absent from films altogether – it is impossible to imagine how the American movie industry would’ve progressed. Granted, “The Birth of Nation” is an embarrassing ancestor. Even in 1915, many people openly questioned the vicious racism and blatant disregard of historical accuracy in that production.
Nonetheless, “The Birth of a Nation” was a mega-achievement that set many standards that are still in practice within today’s film industry. Chief among was the creation of the career trap that Griffith promptly fell into: trying to top a box office hit with an even greater hit.
Harping on his obsession with social injustice, Griffith created an unorthodox epic that spanned the centuries to tell four interweaving stories from different eras that detailed man’s cruelty to his fellow beings. To the casual observer, the stories barely seemed connected: the fall of Babylon, the crucifixion of Jesus, the slaughter of the French Huguenots in the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and a modern tale of corrupt capitalists and hypocritical morality in urban America. Connecting the stories was an image of a woman (played by Lillian Gish) rocking a cradle.
What did it all mean? Even Griffith’s financial backers were hard pressed to come up a coherent explanation. Griffith explained this experimental storytelling technique in this manner: “The stories begin like four currents looked at from a hilltop. At first the four currents flow apart, slowly and quietly. But as they flow, they grow nearer and nearer together, and faster and faster, until in the end, in the last act, they mingle in one mighty river of expressed emotion.”
Needless to say, this created more confusion. In 1916, experimental filmmaking did not exist. The notion of putting non-linear storytelling into the cinematic process was beyond bold – it seemed lunatic. But what was scarier to many people was the scope of the production.
The resulting production, “Intolerance,” staggered the film industry with its grandeur, most notably the 12-story set depicting ancient Babylon (complete with colorful, if anachronistic, elephants) and its budget of $2 million. Griffith employed thousands of extras and shot endless feet of film in an attempt to make an important artistic statement.
And that is why I can never embrace “Intolerance” – it tries too hard to be a great film. At its best, it is bold and bizarre. But at its worse, it is pretentious and strangely clueless. It ultimately becomes a contradiction that goes too far and not far enough.
The key problem, I feel, comes in having a decided lack of balance between the four stories. In terms of visual spectacle, the Babylonian story is unsurpassed. Indeed, most contemporary articles on “Intolerance” inevitably focus on the massive set for this part of the story. Even by today’s standards, the sheer size and intricacy is mind-boggling. The tragedy of this story – the Persian onslaught that signals the downfall of ancient Babylon – is a tour-de-force in bringing the gore and fury of ancient military conflicts to life. However, the idea of feeling sorry for the ancient Babylonians strikes me as being a little off-kilter.
In terms of emotional value, the modern story is the best of the four. This was actually shot in 1914 as “The Mother and the Law,” but Griffith shelved its release in favor of “The Birth of a Nation” and then wove it into “Intolerance.” It is a strikingly cynical tale of greedy industrialists and hypocritical social reformers who prey on the working class. At the heart of the story is the frame-up of a young man (known as “The Boy” and played by the underappreciated Robert Harron). He is arrested and sent to prison, where he faces execution. It is through the sheer force of energy of his beloved (Mae Marsh) that he is spared from death at the gallows – she literally races against time to deliver evidence that clears him of his crime and spares him from being put to death for a crime he did not commit. As with the climax of “The Birth of a Nation,” the conclusion of this story is an astonishing triumph of brilliant scene composition and peerless editing.
And what about the Judean story and the French story? In comparison, both seem pale and forgettable. The Judean story comes across as an anemic Passion Play that marginalizes the Gospels into the miracle at Cana, Christ’s rescue of the woman taken in adultery, and the Nazarene’s one-way trip to Golgotha. It is surprisingly lacking in drama and humanity – it feels like a stale masquerade. The French story is even worse, with the cartoonishly evil Catherine de Medici and her vile Catholic bretheren plotting to slaughter the impossibly kind Gallic Protestants. Reportedly, a good chunk of the story was cut out of this segment prior to the film’s release, which may explain why it doesn’t resonate.
On their own terms, the four stories are an uneven mix. But wrapped together, with segments zooming in and out with no particular rhyme or reason, it becomes a tiring and tiresome experience. “Intolerance” requires a great deal of patience from an audience to endure.
The resulting film overwhelmed audiences in 1916 – and, sadly, alienated them. Few people in that era could relate emotionally to the scale and scope of Griffith’s epic. Critic Alexander Woolcott summed it up succinctly: “Unprecedented and indescribable splendor of pageantry is combined with grotesque incoherence of design and utter fatuity of thought.”
Even worse, the film’s perceived pacifist sentiments seemed wildly outdated by the time it was released – American public opinion was progressing towards involvement in the so-called World War raging in Europe, and a movie decrying intolerance against mankind was a wee bit out of place.
The independently financed “Intolerance” was commercial failure of unprecedented proportions. Triangle Pictures Corp., Griffith’s production and distribution company that was built on the unprecedented success of “The Birth of a Nation,” went bankrupt with the anemic returns from “Intolerance.” Griffith attempted to salvage the wreckage by re-editing and re-releasing the Babylonian and modern chapters as standalone features, but those works also failed to win box office success in all but one market.
The only audiences who understood what Griffith was trying to accomplish were in the Soviet Union. But it was hardly a triumph for Griffith, as the Soviet audiences were viewing bootlegged prints that were created and distributed without Griffith’s knowledge.
The failure of “Intolerance” created an artistic setback for Griffith, who would not direct another film until “Hearts of the World” in 1918. It also created acute financial difficulties, as Griffith was saddled with debts from this failed epic that would take years to pay off. The filmmaker would continue to try to outdo “The Birth of a Nation,” but he never duplicated that effort. Within 15 years of the release of “Intolerance,” his career was over.
“Intolerance” slipped into the public domain years ago, and over time there have been multiple versions of the film. Running times vary between the numerous copies in circulation – editions running from 178 to 198 minutes can be found. As with most public domain films, quality control is haphazard – though it may not be the best idea to try to watch the film on the various Internet video sites that offer it for free viewing.
While I am not a fan of the film, I will admit that “Intolerance” should be seen at least once in order to complete your education of film history. Whether you choose to see it again for entertainment value is your call. Personally, I’ll pass on this one.
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