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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

Intolerance (1916)



Reviews and Comments

"Of course, hired mothers are never negligent."

D. W. Griffith's Intolerance was groundbreaking in a number of ways, not the least of which is the film's narrative structure: it consists of four separate tales, from different points in history, interwoven together, which collectively illustrate the destruction that comes of varying types of intolerance. The film, as with much of Griffith's work, is heavy-handed by today's standards in the delivery of its message, but the individual stories are great stories first and foremost and morality plays second.

Two stories get significantly more attention than the other two. The longer stories involve the final days of the Babylonian Empire (later edited into its own feature under the title The Fall of Babylon) and a modern day story about a couple torn apart by an unforgiving society (also later rereleased on its own, as The Woman and the Law). The shorter stories are that of Jesus Christ's life and crucifixion and religious violence in 16th century France.

The Fall of Babylon segment is spectacular historical epic. It featured the largest set built for any movie at the time, 5000 extras, and 250 chariots. The grandeur and epic scope of the film is readily apparent on the screen. Of course this means nothing without a strong story to back it up, but it certainly has that. The central character, referred to only as The Mountain Girl, is a pretty progressive heroine, particularly by Griffith standards.

The Woman and the Law was conceived as an independent feature; it was nearing completion before Griffith decided it integrate it into this larger film. This one, while often less substantial than the other three tales, nevertheless contains the most wrenching single sequence of the film, involving the interference of social workers in the integrity of a family. This sequence may be even more relevant today than it was in 1916. Then, the part of that story that must have hit hard was the massacre of the workers, which was based on Ludlow Massacre, which took place just two years earlier. This and other aspects of this segment hit audaciously hard.

The power of these stories is strengthened when edited together. While the film takes its time building up steam, gradually it does, and by the time it reaches the last half hour, during which all four stories reach their climaxes with increasingly furious cross-cutting, it has achieved a powerful intensity.

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