This is a new series I’m dubbing 100 Essential Films. Last year a friend gave me a really cool gift. It’s a scratch-off poster featuring 100 movies that someone (whoever put the poster together) considers essential viewing. We all know how these kinds of lists work: they’re extremely subjective. But, I have the poster, and it’s a good set of films. I figured, why not write a little about each one as I watch them and (literally) scratch them off the list? There are a lot I’ve never seen, and a fair amount that I have. This will be a great way to catch up with the former, as well as a good way to revisit and get on record with the latter.
The image at the top of the review is “before scratch-off” (the image quality will not be great on the first few, I started scratching off before I decided to do this). At the bottom, you’ll find the “after scratch-off” image, as well as a picture of the whole poster, which was produced by the good people at Pop Chart Lab. (I am not being compensated by, nor do I endorse, their website.)
I’ll post these sporadically between my more regular reviews as I see the movies. Without further ado, here is the first film on the poster and in the series: D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. I rented the 2013 edition Blu-ray, produced by the Cohen Film Collection, from my local library. The restoration work is flawless; this addition of the film looks stunning.
The first time I visited Los Angeles, in 2005, I got my initial taste of D.W. Griffith’s mammoth 1916 production of Intolerance. Fitting for Hollywood, it was a way for the city known as the Dream Factory to try to sell to me something. A full-size replica of the archway and elephant statues from the Belshazzar’s Feast sequence of the film were built in 2001 for the Hollywood and Highland Shopping Center. That’s the retail and entertainment complex where the TCL (formerly the Grauman’s, then Mann’s) Chinese Theater – with the celebrity autographs etched into the cement sidewalk – sits. It was certainly impressive to see at the time; those massive elephants towering over the center of the complex. I hadn’t yet seen the film, though, and it would be another 14 years before I could appreciate the scale of what Griffith had done, not only for that sequence, but for the whole film.
The feast sequence, which is the centerpiece of the Fall of Babylon story – one of the four storylines that the film cross-cuts between during its three-and-half hour running time – is utterly spectacular. Forget a qualifier like “for 1916.” The shear scale and attention to detail that Griffith achieved as he re-created one of the most famous city-wide bacchanals of antiquity is breathtaking. Griffith built a special scaffolding system to capture the scene from high above and as a tracking shot in a time when almost every movie featured static shots from a camera planted in front of its subjects, completely motionless. I had read descriptions of the feast scenes in film school, but nothing prepared me for seeing it first-hand, even on a TV screen as opposed to a proper theatrical exhibition. I muttered, “oh, wow,” to myself as the scene unfolded before my eyes.
There is a grandeur that Griffith sustains for the whole of Intolerance. The film, which is subtitled Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages, follows four story lines that take place over thousands of years. The first is the one set in ancient Babylon, tracking two warring factions who worship different gods. The second is a truncated version of Christ’s crucifixion. The third takes place in sixteenth century France, and details the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, another example of intolerance spurred by religious differences. The last story is, for 1916, a modern one, chronicling everyday workers being crushed under the weight of the ruthless ruling class. A socialite’s misguided (and arguably sinister) attempt at social reforms leads to a workers’ strike and her organization taking a poverty-stricken mother’s child away from her.
Griffith pioneered the idea of building suspense through innovative editing, called cross-cutting. A standard practice now, it involves taking the actions of two different sets of events and alternating between them in order to build to a climax. Intolerance is a master class in the technique, and Griffith was so ahead of his time that its equal can only be found in a film made almost a century later: the Wachowski sisters’ sprawling, epic 2012 film Cloud Atlas.
Of course, D.W. Griffith used his considerable storytelling powers for ill as well as for good. The director, who was from Kentucky, held deeply bigoted views about blacks. His troubling masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation – released in 1915 – is a nauseating example of Griffith using the filmmaking techniques he invented to promote the very idea he claimed to fight in Intolerance. The Birth of a Nation tells the origin story of the Ku Klux Klan and led to the organization’s resurgence in the early 20th century. To counter the destructive legacy of Birth, director Spike Lee skewered the film, using a similar cross-cutting strategy, in his brilliant 2018 film BlacKkKlansman.
Perhaps the most unjust aspect of the legacy of Intolerance is the inaccurate assertion – which you can find falsely proclaimed ALL OVER THE INTERNET – that Griffith made the film as a mea culpa for The Birth of a Nation. It was, in fact, the exact opposite. In the perfect definition of irony, Griffith made Intolerance as a rebuke to what he considered the intolerance of the people and groups (including the NAACP) who called him out for his disgusting rhetoric in Birth.
His point is made clearer when you stop to think about the characters in Intolerance. There is exactly zero focus on people of color’s suffering at the hands of intolerant behavior. As you might expect in 1916, even the story lines set in ancient Babylon and Judea are all populated by white actors. Women, too, aren’t treated particularly well. In comparison to The Birth of a Nation, though, and for 1916, the sexism is somewhat subtler. The villain in the “modern day” story is the temperance movement, one that Griffith clearly saw as being spearheaded by women who didn’t know their proper place.
And still, all that aside, Intolerance is an unbelievable technical achievement and a marvel to watch. Griffith’s storytelling powers are on full display throughout the picture. It’s easy to get caught up in the movie as it flits effortlessly between each plot. It at least tries to honor values like empathy, unlike the odious Birth of a Nation. That movie puts the same of Griffith’s many filmmaking skills on display, but unlike Intolerance, to destructive ends.