Having shot a staggering 500 short features between 1908 and 1913, David Wark Griffith was better prepared than most when Hollywood execs finally realised that movies were a viable narrative medium capable of running for more than a few minutes. But no one was prepared for what Griffith would do with his opportunity. Almost 100 years later, filmmakers – and that’s all filmmakers – are still using the language he devised.
Today, of course, Griffith’s impact on modern culture is overshadowed by The Birth Of A Nation (1915), his charming tribute to those loveable rogues the Ku Klux Klan. Although spectacular, Birth’s a sordid piece of cinema that depicts the Klansman as crusaders protecting romantic Southern whites from their evil slaves – depicted here as malevolent savages. The fact that Griffith’s father was a Confederate soldier makes his bias understandable if unpalatable, but however repulsive the content seems today, criticism of the film has reached rather overblown proportions. Sure, it’s deeply unpleasant but The Birth Of A Nation now seems pompous and boring rather than sinister and malign. And while Griffith was pleased with Birth’s box office (it sold over three million theatre tickets), his film was not given an easy ride at the time of its release – many critics, including President Woodrow Wilson, voiced their concerns about his depiction of racial violence.
Griffith set out to make amends with an ambitious project that would be both his crowning achievement and the cause of his rapid career collapse. Co-written by Tod Browning (later to direct Dracula and Freaks), Intolerance sought to criticise man’s inhumanity to man by intercutting four unrelated tales from history. In ancient Babylon, religious tensions lead to the city’s downfall. In Judea, Jesus Christ is condemned by the Pharisees. In Reformation France, Paris is torn apart by the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. And in turn-of-the-century America, the status quo is shaken by social reform. These thematically similar episodes are rather incongruously framed around the image of a mother (played by Griffith’s actor-of-choice Lillian Gish) rocking a child in a cradle.
The scale and opulence of Intolerance is extraordinary, the Belshazzar’s Feast sequence alone featuring legions of dignitaries, elephants and naked prostitutes. The whores were originally shot by assistant Joseph Hanbury, who covered them up, only for a furious Griffith to reshoot gratuitous nude shots to splice in later. There’s also something very modern about the Fall Of Babylon battle scenes. The storming of the gates is near-indistinguishable from a similar episode in The Ten Commandments and features limb-lopping, decapitations and spouts of blood that wouldn’t be out of place in modern war movies. Yes, to modern audiences, the wide-eyed acting of the silent era seems a bit much, but Intolerance still continues to impress because of its sheer scale. Without the benefit of CGI, the on-screen effects actually had to be created in minute detail, from the thousands of soldiers in the battle scenes (recruited from Hollywood flophouses) to the Babylonian palace that was built full-scale in the desert and simply buried when shooting wrapped.
Yet despite being created at the very dawn of cinema, Intolerance is a film that uses action, close-ups and orchestral scoring in a way virtually unchanged today. Costing a then-unheard of $250,000, Intolerance was the Waterworld of its day. Because although The Birth Of A Nation had pulled in over $10 million from a budget of $100,000 (making it far more profitable than, say, Jurassic Park), Intolerance died at the box office. In 1916, the American audience that had lapped up his racist adventure were too busy gearing up for World War I to give a damn about a plea for pacifism – they wanted jingoism that would validate their sacrifice as noble and worthy. Even Griffith gave up on the picture, pulling it from distribution in 1917 before re-releasing the showy Biblical segment as The Fall Of Babylon.
Alas, the Hollywood that could stomach Griffith’s racism could not tolerate his failure. In creating the action epic and paving the way for Cecil B D Mille and David Lean, Griffith put the kibosh on his own career. He prefigured his demise in the 1924 Civil War film American, which showcased the pitfalls that await ambitious patriots, and when he co-founded United Artists with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, his race was already run. By the time he died in 1948, he’d been out of work for almost a decade. And his last contribution to the medium he’d helped create? An uncredited gig directing the 1940 Victor Mature dinosaur monster One Million BC.
Intolerance will be released on Blu-ray by Eureka! Entertainment later this year