The invention of computer special effects has undoubtedly made moviemaking easier. With computers, a director can show us fantastic beasts and gigantic crowds without hiring extras or even leaving the office.
But computers have forever robbed us of movies like “Intolerance.”
You might expect a 100-year-old film to be backward and outdated. But “Intolerance” feels vibrant, explosive, and awe-inspiring.
Controversial director D. W. Griffith tells four stories from four different periods of world history, each loosely based around the sin of intolerance.
The most intellectually forceful of the four stories is set in the present day (pre-World War I urban America). It begins with three rich, bored Waspy ladies founding a social reform organization.
If you ask the ladies, their goal is moral uplift. If you ask D. W. Griffith, these busybodies are motivated by classism, anti-Catholic prejudice, and a sick need to control others. This is the same crew of arrogant do-gooders that was on the verge of criminalizing alcohol.
The ladies barge in and snatch a sweet young woman’s baby away because they see her drinking whiskey as a cold remedy. And they believe that her working-class husband killed someone and he gets sent to the hangman for a crime he didn’t commit.
The highlight of “Intolerance” is the segment set in ancient Babylon on the eve of destruction at the hands of Persian King Cyrus the Great.
The Babylon sets are incredibly ambitious. They aren’t impressive by early 20th Century standards; they are jaw-dropping to this day. The main city set features a huge stone staircase, gigantic statues of the gods, and thousands of wildly-dressed extras. It is more impressive than CGI effects could ever be.
The twenty-minute Persian siege of Babylon is jaw-dropping. The 30-foot walls, the huge rolling siege towers, the hundreds of fiery arrows flying … it seemed like a real ancient battle.
Why was the studio willing to write D. W. Griffith a blank check to film his grand vision? That’s an unpleasant story. It’s because his previous movie – “Birth of a Nation” – was a box office smash and a cultural phenomenon.
I’ve read that Griffith intended “Intolerance” as a kind of public apology for his pro-Ku Klux Klan hit. I don’t think that’s true, though. “Intolerance” is about religious bigotry; it doesn’t contain a single word about race.
The truth is more uncomfortable. D. W. Griffith was both a disgusting Jim Crow racist and a forward-thinking liberal with sympathy for religious minorities and oppressed immigrants.
People aren’t simple and history doesn’t progress in a straight line. D. W. Griffith was a hideous racist who made an art film about empathy. And “Intolerance” is a fuzzy silent film that has battle scenes that blow 21st Century action flicks out of the water.