BLU-RAY REVIEW: INTOLERANCE (LOVE’S STRUGGLE THROUGHOUT THE AGES) / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: D.W. GRIFFITH / SCREENPLAY: VARIOUS / STARRING: LILLIAN GISH, CONSTANCE TALMADGE, DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS, SPOTTISWOODE AITKEN / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
It would be understandable if a filmmaker who had just produced a film considered the most controversial of his generation, and possibly of any generation, would take a little time to consider his next move and perhaps maintain a low profile. Not D. W. Griffith. Unable to understand some of the reactions to The Birth of a Nation (reactions that included rioting after several screenings) he set about creating a silent epic to surpass all epics, embarking on a production that would raise filmmaking standards to a level that has rarely been equalled, and arguably never bettered.
Upon its release in 1916, Intolerance (Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages) was the most expensive motion picture ever made, estimated at $2.5 million, the equivalent to $47 million in 2014 money, with a huge central cast including leading silent film stars Lillian Gish and Constance Talmadge. There were also over 3.000 extras. Weaving four unrelated yet similarly-themed stories set across the ages, Griffith determined that intolerance was a blight on humanity and suppressed developing civilisations. Edited together with masterful intricacy is a Babylonian story remarkably depicting the fall of Babylon itself; a Judean tale dealing with the crucifixion of Christ; a French story relating the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre; and a modern American tale of class struggle and the search for justice.
It may seem somewhat curious that a director who struggled to understand the response to a film that featured blacked-up white actors, blatantly racist politics, and an origin story for the Ku Klux Klan, as The Birth of a Nation did, would then tackle the subject of intolerance for his next project. But that is exactly what Griffith did, and he did so with spectacular results. Even when judged by modern standards when anything and everything can be shown on screen, when arguably some of the magic of cinema is missing due to an audience’s over-exposure to the fantastic, Intolerance is jaw-droppingly awe-inspiring. Some of the set pieces, in particular during the Babylonian thread, are of such a scale as to inspire wonderment at how it could have been possible at all. The battle scenes rival The Lord of the Rings for their choreography and majesty, but dwarf even those with the knowledge that each performance is physical and not the work of a computer effect. That is not to denigrate Peter Jackson’s achievements, but it does certainly provide some perspective to the comparison.
The interesting thing is that Intolerance is more than likely a film that has passed most casual film fans by. Overshadowed by its controversial predecessor, and initially a flop at the box office, this is a film that only through the passing of time has received the plaudits it deserves. In fact, so great was its failing in 1916 that it almost single-handedly brought about the failure and subsequent sale of Triangle Film Corporation, the studio behind the production.
Watching it now it is easy to see influences on the history of cinema, and it is interesting that in a time when a three-hour running time is becoming the norm, a visionary filmmaker was demonstrating how that time could be used nearly 100 years ago. Intolerance has a grandeur that few films of any era have captured and is an essential addition to any cinephile’s collection. For that matter, it is really a film that should be seen at least once by everyone.
Special Features: Orchestral score by composter Carl Davis / Two feature-length films by Griffith / ‘Three Hour That Shook the World’ documentary / 56-page booklet
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