Silents are Golden: A Closer Look at: Intolerance (1916)
Along with my “Silent Superstars” series, I thought it would be fun to dive into the history behind specific films. Let’s start with a look at one of biggest spectacles ever put on film–Intolerance!
It is one of the grandest, most epic films ever made, a massive multi-hour spectacle that can still inspire awe today–even though it’s been over a century since it was released. This is D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), which is even more stunning when you consider all the technological limitations of Edwardian film.
How did such an ambitious film get made in that long-ago era? The key to Intolerance’s existence is a much smaller film called The Mother and the Law. Starring Mae Marsh and Robert Harron (two talented young actors who had co-starred in Griffith films for years), The Mother and the Law was originally a three-reel drama about the plight of a poverty-stricken young couple whose lives are unfairly torn apart by authorities. The majority of it was filmed in the fall of 1914, directly after Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) had wrapped up. Work was interrupted, however, when The Birth’s success also spurred a number of controversies over its racial content (you may be familiar with those controversies yourself).
Once he got back to The Mother and the Law, a new idea had occurred to Griffith. Why not edit the smaller film and incorporate it into a grand spectacle revolving around the theme of “intolerance”? Despite what many think today, the new project would not be an “apology” for The Birth of a Nation–Griffith would actually be making an argument for more tolerance of varying viewpoints, as well as criticizing over-zealous “reformers” and other influential authority figures. He was also highly interested in competing with big-budget epics like Italy’s Cabiria (1914), positive that he could make an equally ambitious film.
Intolerance would have four separate stories weaving in and out of one another: the “Modern” story with Marsh and Harron, the “Judean” story that examined the events leading to Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, the “French” story about the massacre of the Huguenots, and the final and grandest of them all, the “Babylonian” story about the fall of Belshazzar’s kingdom. Never mind that the history of ancient Babylon doesn’t make it a great candidate for being a “victim of intolerance”–Griffith simply had to have Babylonian spectacle, with a giant set and all.
His cast–which, counting extras, totalled around 3,000–included Constance Talmadge (in a breakout performance as the tomboyish Mountain Girl), Lillian Gish, Alfred Paget, Bessie Love, and reportedly numerous now-famous names in small roles, such as Douglas Fairbanks, Erich von Stroheim, Wallace Reid, Tod Browning, and so on. Every detail of historic clothing, armor, vehicles, decorations, etc. was meticulously researched, especially the Babylon sections. Assistant director Joseph Henabery recalled: “I ended up with a shelf about fifteen feet long, crammed with books [on Babylon]. Griffith would ask me, ‘Now what kind of a chariot would we use for the year of Belshazzar’s Feast?’
All of the (very disparate) sets were meticulously designed. The jail during the Modern story, for instance, was based on San Quentin and on the dank San Francisco city jail, where Griffith and his assistant directors were given a tour by the warden. Paintings were an important inspiration–certain shots in the Babylon story were modeled after Romanticist paintings like Babylonian Marriage Market by Edward Long (1875), while the scenery and costumes in the Judea portions were inspired by James Tissot’s paintings of the Holy Land. One Morning at the Gates of the Louvre by Édouard Debat-Ponsan influenced a shot depicting the aftermath of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre.
The famous Babylon set was, of course, one of the wonders of the cinematic world. Situated between Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset where the Vista Theater stands today, the sprawling set featured walls around 140 feet high and could carry the weight of a speeding chariot. Building that set was such a lengthy undertaking that shooting the Babylon scenes had to be saved for last. According to cameraman Karl Brown, the set designs were created by Walter L. Hall, who had a knack for combining different Babylonian styles into one cohesive-looking “Great Hall”–topped with those famous elephants. (Griffith absolutely insisted on elephants, although he wouldn’t greenlight any designs until someone finally found a reference to “elephants on the walls of Babylon” buried in a history book.)
The mighty elephant-topped columns we see in the film’s most famous shot were actually built in sections, which from the front appeared to be part of continuous walls. The famous tracking shot of the Hall was done by a camera platform descending on railroad tracks that were fastened to a tower. Megaphones were used to direct hundreds of extras and flares illuminated the complicated nighttime shots. To this day, the battle scenes with their thundering chariots and giant rolling towers are some of the most ambitious and exciting ever captured on film–in this writer’s opinion, unrivalled until Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Modern viewers who haven’t seen Intolerance because they’re worried it’s “too long” or “old-fashioned” might be amazed to know it includes a giant, rolling flamethrower!
While Intolerance (subtitled as “A Sun Play for the Ages” and “Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages”) was a hit at first, it proved too expensive to make a profit. Even its eye-popping spectacle couldn’t quite mask its flaws, which many discuss to this day. Some considered the jumping from one time period to another a bit puzzling too (although today we consider it ahead of its time). Griffith couldn’t even afford to tear down the famous Babylon set, which stood crumbing until 1919 (some wanted to designate it a cultural landmark, but sadly the efforts were in vain).
But it remains an immense achievement filled with remarkable, timeless performances, especially by Marsh, Harron, and Talmadge. Some critics and historians go as far as to call it the era’s finest film. And this author just might agree.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.