Monday, May 29, 2006
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
Saturday, May 06, 2006
Intolerance (D.W. Griffith, 1916)
In choosing a silent film to examine, I wanted to familiarize myself with a director I knew little about. I easily could have written about Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton who I have great admiration for, but I found myself becoming more and more curious about D.W. Griffith, the man considered a genius by some, and a racist by others. I had seen Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) before and I can’t disagree with critics who claim it to be an incredibly racist film, yet there is no denying Griffith’s artistic talents and contributions to the film medium. In an attempt to level the playing field I decided to analyze Griffith’s response to the critics who called him a racist, Intolerance. Although I wouldn’t consider Intolerance an apology for his position, but rather “an attack on the forces that saw fit to restrict his right to free speech” ( Koszarski, 320). In the proceeding paper, I intend to discuss how the Italian spectacle films influenced Griffith’s Intolerance as well as explore the impact of his film.
Some consider Intolerance to be one of the most spectacular and underappreciated films of all time. It was a colossal undertaking filled with enormous sets, lavish period costumes, and more than 3,000 extras. The film consisted of four distinct but parallel stories that demonstrated mankind's intolerance during four different ages in world history with a timeline covering approximately 2,500 years. The Modern America (1914) story demonstrates how crime, moral puritanism, and conflicts between ruthless capitalists and striking workers helped ruin the lives of Americans. The "Babylonian" period (539 BC) depicts the fall of Babylon as a result of intolerance arising from a conflict between devotees of different Babylonian gods. The "Judean" era (circa 27 AD) recounts how intolerance led to the crucifixion of Jesus. The final story takes place during the French Renaissance (1572) and tells of the failure of the Edict of Toleration that led to the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre.
“The success of Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria had been one of the determining factors that drove Griffith during the the filming of The Birth of a Nation, then exposure to the film sometime in 1914 or 15 had a direct influence on the shaping of Intolerance” (Schickel, 309). “Birth, marked his success at creating an American spectacle film, but with Intolerance, Griffith now had the chance to challenge the Italians on their own ground with a more obviously grandiose work that would have a universal Christian appeal” (Schickel, 309). In fact many similarities and cross-references between Cabiria and the Babylonian sequence can be found. Both films deal with the seizure of an ancient city and the spectacular settings are similarly designed. “Griffith even insisted on including large 300 ft elephants, despite the fact no evidence supported they were a significant part of the civilization’s iconography. The point was they had been used on the Cabiria sets and Griffith liked them” (Schickel, 310). The modern day story was originally meant to be released under the title The Mother and the Law without the inclusion of the other three stories, but Griffith was dissatisfied with it, not feeling it was triumphant enough to follow up The Birth of a Nation. He realized there was a way to rescue his film by combining it with something that would evoke a response from his critics as well as his foreign rivals while driving home his message about the morals of meddlesomeness.
Intolerance, much like the Italian spectacle films and similarly to Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) which we saw a sequence from in class, is very modern in theme and technique. It was well ahead of its time using many editing and juxtaposition techniques commonly employed in films today. The total cost of the film is estimated to be close to $2 million (around $33 million in today's dollars), an astronomical sum in 1916. The great courtyard setting during the Babylonian story that is the most spectacular and most familiar due to the often-reproduced stills. More than likely this kind of a set would be reproduced using computer animation techniques today to save time and money much like how the Coliseum was recreated in the film Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2000). The CGI Coliseum looks like CGI was used, which detracts from some of its impressiveness and in turn makes the sets for such spectacles as Intolerance all the more exhilarating. “Griffith had carpenters build a ceiling on the set of the French court - a then unheard of practice and still a rare practice - and by showing it to the audience at certain moments, he gained a strong ironic effect of elegance and confinement” (Williams, 87).
Unfortunately Intolerance failed at the box office which meant enormous financial problems for Griffith from which he never really recovered from. “It has been suggested that the techniques Griffith used in the fil were simply overwhelming for the audiences of the time, and that they found the film confusing. It wasn’t until the 1960s that directors and film editors began to reintroduce the sustained jump-cutting of such brief lengths of film” (Williams, 90). Others have suggested that Griffith failed to arouse any sympathy for Babylon or the Huguenots and simply used the battle scenes just for thrills and spectacle, but I would have to disagree with this seeing as felt Prince Belshazzar and the Mountain Girl character as well as Brown Eyes were especially well developed for such a complicated narrative structure. Perhaps audiences didn’t like the idea of Babylon losing the battle, the Huguenots being massacred, and the majority of the major characters dying in the end, but I found it to be quite moving.
Audiences also might not have been prepared for the onscreen violence depicted in Intolerance. In the Modern story we see gang leader known as the Musketeer is shot by his jealous girlfriend, and in Prosper Latour is shot dead after his love, Brown Eyes is stabbed by the sword of the Mercenary. The battle scene during the Babylonian story was shockingly violent when compared to my expectations from a film released in 1916. Fire and smoke rain from the sky as towers crash to the ground. Arrows penetrate through characters, men jump and are thrown from the tops of towers and fall to their doom, men are stabbed, blood spills, rocks from catapults hit soldiers in the head, and on two separate occasions we see the decapitation of a man by another’s sword. This kind of violence was uncharacteristic of early silent films, and didn’t really become common until the 1960s. The battle sequence brings to mind more recent epics such as Braveheart (Mel Gibson, 1995) and even The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002); especially in regards to the orcs climbing the ladders and being pushed over while attempting to storm the castle walls. The contribution of Griffith and others like him such as Gance and Eisenstein who synthesized the many techniques of the film medium so well can’t be overlooked. It is a shame that Griffith’s Intolerance was a failure in his time and that he has been discredited by many because of his controversial position in The Birth of a Nation. I myself don’t agree with his message in that film, but his abilities as a filmmaker are undeniable and should be embraced for what they are worth.