Home > Film Selection, Sunday Screening Films > Sunday Screening #28: Intolerance

Sunday Screening #28: Intolerance

This is going to be a test for all involved: a (nearly) three hour silent film. It’s not so much the silent part, but the three hour part. That’s a lot of movie. I’ve only seen Birth of a Nation by Griffith (and I watched that mostly in fast forward) and since he’s considered one of the greatest ever (Welles and Hitchcock thought so… maybe I need to stop reading books about movies…). It’s on the AFI top 100 films, too, so we’re doing God’s work by watching it. Sorry, but I couldn’t find a trailer to attach.

Paul — I’m just going to save you the trouble of pretending that you’re going to participate and give you a pass on this one.

  1. July 19, 2011 at 9:44 AM

    I have this on DVD.

  2. John
    July 20, 2011 at 11:03 AM

    Great video! Your dog is a great actor (I am using this in the non-gender sense since I am not sure of your dog’s gender).

    And for those of you who are protesting Netflix’s latest price hike by dropping either the streaming or DVD-only option, you can also view the film here:


    • July 20, 2011 at 2:40 PM

      Thanks, dude! Shasta was awesome. Did exactly what I needed when I asked. W.C. Fields was full of shit… And Shasta is a girl.

  3. July 24, 2011 at 3:14 PM

    I don’t know exactly how to start talking about Intolerance as it features four narratives in over three hours. There’s a lot going on, not all of which is necessary. Also, I have trouble discussing certain older films because we watch movies so differently today. Comedies are easy because visual humor is pretty universal, but I have no idea who the audience for Intolerance was. It’s hard to appreciate innovations of the form, as well, because they have become ubiquitous. Would I have been wowed by the cross-cutting at the time? Who knows? And, truth be told, I have trouble giving credit to people who did things first because many times others were doing the same things at the same time and didn’t have the profile or someone else would have come up with it. However, since most scholars credit Griffith with the vast majority of innovations to that point, I’m willing to let my reservations abate.

    My overwhelming feeling while watching Intolerance was the Griffith thinks his audience is full of idiots. That may be true, but he really hammers home the “intolerance” theme, putting it in as many title cards as possible and stating how each segment links with the others. Having a director do that for nearly three and a half hours is tiresome. My favorite example of its use in a title is when they “intolerate [The Boy] away for a term.”

    I had a bit of trouble following the French story and why it was included aside from fitting with the historical theme. The whole thing seemed rather half-baked (though I’m by no means wishing there was more of it to fill the story out). Also, it was rather on-the-nose to have the story of Jesus involved, but there were heavy Christian themes throughout, so I guess Griffith felt it was unavoidable. I thought it was interesting that each of the stories (well… maybe not the modern one) featured effeminate men and that Jesus was one of them (I don’t think he was supposed to be, but that’s how he came off to me). And this isn’t really a criticism of anything, but I like this note I took when the cross shadow was hovering over Jesus: “cross over Jesus –> what a benevolent turd.”

    As for the things I like — and I did like the movie — I thought the sets and the direction of the extras was amazing. I loved the high shots with lots of movement. Griffith’s framing was quite impressive with the eye constantly being drawn deeper into the image. The action was very impressive and the cross-cutting at the end, while primitive, was effective. I wish more people would be willing to black out parts of the screen like Griffith did when people were falling from the tower and he created a vertical rectangle in the middle of the screen. The mis-en-scene was impeccable. It’s hard for me to believe how sophisticated movies were this early in their existence.

    — Tod Browning (Freaks) had a hand in the script!
    — The Dear One seemed a bit slow to me and I couldn’t stand the actress playing her.
    — “A sun-play for the ages”
    — The Mountain Girl reminded me of Lea Thompson
    — Whenever I watch a movie this old, I can’t help but think everyone involved is probably dead (I’d say is dead, but that baby could still be kickin’ it, and I don’t mean the bucket).
    — “Help me be a strong-jawed jane.”
    — I liked when Griffith hated characters: “ladies band together for ‘uplift’ of the nation” and “women who cease to attract men turn to Reform.”
    — There was lots of bad facial hair on display here.
    — Each of the civilizations depicted thought they were the apex of progress. I wonder what they would think of us today (and what we’d think of the future).
    — Apparently, Griffith viewed this as a response to criticism of Birth of a Nation being racist by claiming that those critics were intolerant of other’s beliefs.

    • July 26, 2011 at 12:10 PM

      After posting my comments, and reading yours, it seems we agreed on quite a bit, although I wasn’t as interested in finishing as you were, and I would definitely say I didn’t like the film.

      I don’t know that D.W. necessarily thought his audience was full of idiots as much as I think that the filmmaking was so advanced, that he had to hammer home points so that the ‘primitive’ audience would be able to keep up with the story (which didn’t apparently work for me…maybe I’m more of a caveman then 1916 man was?).

      I like that you touch on the set-pieces and set-design. Both were very impressive, even not taking into account when the film was made. If I remember right one of these scenes had/has the record for the most extras (I might have totally made that up). The film is estimated to have cost somewhere around two million dollars, which was the most expensive film ever made, and you can see most of it in the set.

      I also have soft spot for vignetting to draw the viewers eye to a certain area of the frame. I actually put on Antoine et Colette when I gave up on Intolerance to watch some of my favourite use of this technique (Available on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5JMVXdsHv94 in several pieces, MAN I love Truffaut!).

      • July 26, 2011 at 7:16 PM

        Apparently, there wasn’t an audience for this movie because everything I read said that it never made its money back, even when it was re-cut into two different movies.

        And that’s a good point about audiences that weren’t used to this kind of story telling. Like I said, it’s hard to get into the mindset of a film-goer in 1916. For some reason, before watching this, I’d been thinking it was shot in 1926 and was going to be harder on it. Since it was a decade earlier, I forgave some of the shortcomings that you probably didn’t. Definitely liked it more than Birth of a Nation.

    • John
      July 26, 2011 at 8:53 PM

      I agree that the title cards constantly reminding us of intolerance was tiresome, but also agree with Paul that with such a long and complicated movie, especially for its time, it’s probably better to be overly cautious than have your audience completely lost.

      I agree the action set-pieces with all the extras are still quite incredible. The collapsing tower part during the Babylonian fighting must have made Griffith and everyone else on set and backing the film financially very nervous. And a very well-staged beheading, I must say.

      “Women who cease to attract men turn to Reform” is just hilarious.

      • lmmskipper
        July 27, 2011 at 2:14 PM

        The scale of this film is pretty amazing. Even the special effects were nice. It blows my mind that effects back then half the time look better than some of the ones now.

        • John
          July 28, 2011 at 11:27 AM

          I agree…I miss the days of practical and on-set effects. I’ll take an insert shot of a stop-motion creature over a terribly animated CGI concoction any day.

          • lmmskipper
            July 28, 2011 at 4:02 PM

            Which is why the original Star Wars will always be WAY better than the prequels.

  4. July 26, 2011 at 10:58 AM

    Looks like I picked a winner. Paul confessed to not finishing it, yet no words on why he couldn’t. I tell you what…

    • lmmskipper
      July 27, 2011 at 2:15 PM

      Even after the harassment I didn’t finish.

      • July 27, 2011 at 2:39 PM

        It’s ok. I won’t judge you (because I didn’t either, and don’t want to…it’s kind of a surprise I made it as far in as I did honestly).

  5. July 26, 2011 at 11:52 AM

    So, Intolerance…there’s a lot going on here…

    Firstly I didn’t make it but about an hour in before I threw in my proverbial hat. For one thing, I decided to do a drinking game to make the movie more entertaining. It was simple, take a drink everytime the word “Intolerance” appeared on the screen. Man was that not a good idea at all. Some of the title cards had three appearances of the word. But the main reason I quit watching the film was that I was completely bored by it.

    Now, I understand that D.W. Griffith is credited with a lot of the conventions that are still common in the film world. The back of my version of this DVD (yes, I own it. I bought it years ago thinking I’d watch it…and this is probably the only time I’ll put it in a DVD player) claims that Intolerance is the “…greatest film of the silent era, and perhaps the greatest film of all time…” which I don’t necessarily agree with. This film and D.W. did a lot to further film conventions. Intolerance came out roughly 20 years after the invention of a film projector. Take a second to let this sink in. IN 1895 the Lumiere brothers released The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station (for your viewing pleasure: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1dgLEDdFddk ). This short one take film is rumored to have rendered viewers horrified that they were going to be run down by the train. 20 Years later we have D.W. inter-cutting not just multiple stories, but multiple stories across hundreds of years. People of this time period were used to watching stage plays, and here they are presented with a complex interwoven story.

    The problem for me was, the film just didn’t hold up. I feel that some of the great groundbreaking movies are able to hold up over time and still speak to modern audiences (modern audiences=me). Citizen Kane is an enjoyable movie to watch even if you don’t take in account the ground that it breaks. However with Intolerance I was bored. I never really could figure out what the story was supposed to be, which might just as easily be an indictment of me as a film-viewer as it is of the movie. I just never really felt any connection with any of the characters in the film nor their plight. Intolerance seems to slowly plod along, which I think you can attribute to the fact that this movie is creating some of the early instances of the short-hand that we currently have in films.

    I’m currently trying to decide on the film for this coming Sunday, and should have it figured out later today. I’m thinking about making Nate watch The Departed, but I am also leaning towards Tapeheads (which might be #6 on my all time favourite movies list).

    • July 26, 2011 at 7:20 PM

      I liked the Babylonian and Modern stories and would have been happy if the film simply cross-cut between those two. But having four stories was overkill (OverKeal?) and much of the films feels redundant. There’s a pretty good 2 hour movie in there (with some changes to the intertitles, as well).

      Tapeheads, eh? #6 all-time, huh? Glad to read that you’re sticking with the ethos of this site. I tell you what…

    • John
      July 26, 2011 at 9:06 PM

      Awesome! Never seen the video of Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat before. Thanks for posting the link. Then “Voyage to the Moon” popped up, which I had never seen in its entirety, so I had to watch that too ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dxB2x9QzXb0&NR=1&feature=fvwp ). Very entertaining and impressive stage effects.

      Also, I “YouTubed” (don’t know if this term has reached the same level as “Googled”) “Tapeheads”, because I’ve never heard of it before, and this came up: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o9dBiw7xfVU

      Holy crap. I am definitely going to watch that movie, whether it is “SundayScreened” or not.

      • July 27, 2011 at 7:50 AM

        I think some of the older short subjects hold up much better then something like Intolerance. Partially (like Nate mentioned) because they are usually comedy pieces. A guy getting kicked in the marbles is funny now, was funny 1000 years ago, and will continue to be funny 1000 years from now.

        I’m going to go Tapeheads this Sunday, just to give you an excuse to watch it sooner, rather then later. You heard it here first.

        • lmmskipper
          July 27, 2011 at 2:17 PM

          My sister is going to be very excited about me watching Tapeheads. Or maybe I’m extremely confused and thinking of Eraserhead.

  6. John
    July 26, 2011 at 8:45 PM

    I finally finished watching this, and I’m glad I did. I think it’s hard not to be in awe of the ambition, scope, vision, etc., of this film…which, if pulled off correctly, would still be majorly impressive today, let alone 95 years ago. The sets, costumes, performances, are all stunning. The famous Babylonian sets in particular are just breathtaking.

    I think the multiple narrative approach works here for the most part, as long as you’re OK with the film being driven entirely by a message (more on that later). For the films I’ve seen that have significant storylines occurring simultaneously — Claude Le Lelouch’s “Les Uns et les Autres”, which also featured four narratives over three-plus hours, and Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain” come to mind––it helps to have some compelling reason to justify this obtrusive approach. The opportunity to tie everything together occurs naturally during the climax, and I think the way that the climaxes of all three of these films are handled accomplishes the justification pretty well.

    However, you also need to give enough time to all the narratives to make sure the impact of each one isn’t diluted or competing too much with the others, and in “The Fountain”, the three storylines aren’t given enough time to develop, so it’s a bit of an underwhelming viewing experience (but such a great concept, and such an ingenious way of tying all the three narratives together). “Les Uns et les Autres” and “Intolerance” go the opposite extreme by lavishing too much attention on story with their long running times and whopping four narrative threads.

    The Jesus storyline in “Intolerance” felt out of place—I agree with Nate that its inclusion is a little too obvious—partly because it’s the shortest of the four and partly because it’s about Jesus. Its inclusion felt tacked on to me. The St. Barthomolew’s Day Massacre one also felt weak in comparison to the remaining two, but I’d be OK with those three storylines. Focusing on three feels neat and logical for some reason, but it definitely could have worked with just the modern-day one and the Babylonian one, too. But certainly four stories over three-plus hours is simply too much to take in, and it’s easy to be so distracted by all the storylines that you run the risk of not caring about what’s happening on screen.

    The other issue is the message, which is clearly driving everything here—it’s “a drama of comparisons,” as the title card reminds us. To justify the multiple narratives that never intersect except in theme, the message needs to be front and center by design. You can disagree with this approach, because certainly the characters can easily feel like puppets, neatly picked and arranged to portray your point of view. I actually didn’t get that impression here, or perhaps I did initially for a little, but didn’t care. Enough time and details were given to the storylines (with the exception of the Jesus one, but as I mentioned before that one didn’t really feel necessary) for me to stay involved, which was definitely helped by the animated performances and melodramatic happenings. The closing moments of the movie were especially powerful.

    All in all, a fascinating film.

    • July 27, 2011 at 1:46 AM

      One thing I struggled with is that, in theory, every scene should relate to the theme, yet there were several times that I had a difficult time finding that thread. When your movie is 3.5 hours, you definitely don’t want the viewer asking his or herself why certain scenes exist. We can look to Lawrence of Arabia for near perfect execution of this, though it’s a completely different type of film.

      • July 27, 2011 at 8:27 AM

        The version I own is only 178 minutes…where did you guys dig up the 3.5 hour version?

        If I sat through 3.5 hours of Intolerance, I’d probably tolerate a knife to the jugular…

        • John
          July 28, 2011 at 11:33 AM

          I also watched the 3-hour version, but apparently there are longer versions floating around on home video:


          • July 28, 2011 at 2:52 PM

            Netflix has it on DVD and Instant View. It’s listed at 178 minutes, but unless I screwed my time way off, it lasted well over 3 hours for Instant View. I’m thinking that the DVD is 178 minutes and Instant View is longer, though that seems odd to me.

  7. lmmskipper
    July 27, 2011 at 12:59 PM

    I’m finally here!
    Well, I have to be honest straight away… I didn’t finish the movie. I kind of want to, but I doubt I will. Or at least not in a timely manner that will be relevant to this discussion.
    I should of done my initial thought and live commented, I might of stayed awake. Yeah…I fell asleep. To the films defense, though, I was watching it around my summer break nap time.

    So, my thoughts are dealing with the first 1 hr to 1 hr 20 min mark of the movie.

    I think the concept of the movie is interesting, and think I have a script idea similar to that; a connection theme throughout time and character. However, watching this movie now, it’s a little too much. I guess I’ll jump on the “DW thought audience was stupid” bandwagon, cause it makes sense. The movie seemed to be way longer than it needed to be. It repeated things over and over again. It easily could of been a 2 hour movie, 30 minutes for each part; at the most.

    I was a little thrown off by the inclusion of Christ. Granted, his is the perfect example of Intolerance (Drink Paul, Drink!), but I saw his storyline as pretentious. The Dear One, totally agree with Nate, I couldn’t stand her. Was she suppose to be a hype active 8 year old or a bad acting adult? Is it just me, or was the fatherless boy shift from sweet guy who worked with his dad to gangsta a little unnerving? The modern tale was a bit hard to follow, so I’m not sure what was suppose to happen. And yes, Nate, I too keep thinking these actors are dead. Morbid, I know.

    Now, I did like the way it was shot.
    I liked how it was simple shots, but those simple shots were suppose to be state of the art back then. That’s what makes watching a movie this old interesting. What is considered fancy back then is basic now. I loved the change of color hues for each story, it helped keep them straight. The production value, the extras and sets, were pretty awesome. I loved watching the movie, just not necessarily the storyline.

    I’ll go back and comment on individual comments, but these are my thoughts to start off with.

    • July 27, 2011 at 2:21 PM

      I think as a filmmaker D.W. HAD to show the same things over and over to make sure that his audience was able to keep up with the stories (I assume there was some sort of story, I didn’t really see one though).

  8. lmmskipper
    July 27, 2011 at 2:26 PM

    I saw a story, a connective tissue, but I think it took too long to show it. You wonder how much of this annoyance it that we’re faster thinkers, fill-in-the-blanks audience of the 21st century to the novice audiences of the early 1900s.

    • July 28, 2011 at 2:53 PM

      Yeah. People in the early 1900’s were idiots. They didn’t even discover the internet yet. (That’s meant to be snarky at those people, not you, Lisa.)

  9. lmmskipper
    July 28, 2011 at 3:56 PM

    I know right, they didn’t even know what the word google meant, and they definitely didn’t use it as a noun and verb. (no worries, knew you weren’t being snarky to me.)

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