National Catholic Register

Arts & Entertainment

The Silent Passion of D.W. Griffith

The epic Intolerance broke cinematic ground with a Christ-centered theme

BY John Prizer

June 20-26, 1999 Issue | Posted 6/20/99 at 2:00 PM


David Wark Griffith's silent classic, Intolerance, premiered on Sept. 15, 1916. It cost 20 times more than any other movie made up until then and featured many daring photographic and narrative innovations. By that time, Hollywood had already established itself as the one and only production center for star-driven, blockbuster movies with international appeal. Although there have been many important technical improvements since (e.g. sound, color, digital special effects, etc.), the industry's basic formula for success depends on a certain kind of storytelling which remains unchanged.

Griffith, more than any other person, invented the cinematic storytelling techniques that made Hollywood possible. At the height of his career he had more clout than Steven Spielberg and George Lucas put together. But his visionary artistry was often compromised by prejudiced attitudes about race.

When Griffith began directing in 1908, most movies were only 10 to 25 minutes long, and their action was usually confined to a single stagelike set with the actors photographed in head-to-toe shots. He moved the camera closer to the performers, cutting to different angles within a single scene to create dramatic tension. His films were often structured with more than one story line, and he cut back and forth between them to build suspense.

After directing 450 short films with great commercial success, Griffith decided in 1915 to make The Birth of a Nation, which had the length of most feature films today. Based on Thomas Dixon's best seller, The Clansman, it told the story of the Civil War and Reconstruction through parallel narratives about two families, one from the North and the other from the South, whose lives became closely linked. The movie was a box-office smash, the equivalent of The Titanic or The Star Wars sagas today. But African-American groups organized demonstrations against it, protesting its paranoid, racist view of history.

Although defensive about his work, Griffith had an attack of conscience, a situation as rare in Hollywood then as it is now. The son of a Confederate civil-war veteran, he wanted to vindicate himself. He expanded a smaller feature about contemporary social injustice and the working class (The Mother and the Law) to include three new stories set in different time periods. The result was the two-hour, 45-minute epic, Intolerance. The making of it became an act of personal redemption, and the director invested all his profits from The Birth of a Nation in the project.

The message of Intolerance is explained in an opening title card: “Each story shows how hatred and intolerance, through all the ages, have battled against love and charity.” Griffith cuts back and forth between the different time periods more than 50 times to establish thematic links. A recurring image of a mother (Lillian Gish) rocking a cradle, taken from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, is used as a symbolic connecting device to represent the cycle of life and death.

The modern story is the most interesting one. A young Irish Catholic couple (Mae Marsh and Donald Harron) work in a California factory. After a strike that ends in violence, the couple and their infant child are forced to move to the city. The wife remains devout, praying to the Virgin Mary regularly, but her husband falls in with a gang of thieves and is imprisoned. While he's in jail, a group of female reformers, led by the factory owner's unmarried sister (Vera Lewis), unjustly takes the baby away from its mother. Griffith condemns their action and, reflecting a kind of radical populism of the time, depicts progressive reformers as oppressing the workers as much as the factory owners.

Upon his release from jail, the Irish worker is arrested again, this time mistakenly, for the murder of a criminal gang leader (Walter Long). When the young man is sentenced to death, his wife and a Catholic priest continue to pray for him. In a series of oft-imitated scenes, Griffith masterfully builds suspense by crosscutting between the worker's walk to the gallows and his wife's attempts to win a pardon. Commitment to the Catholic faith is shown to make a real difference in the characters' lives.

The Judean story focuses on the persecution of Jesus (Howard Gaye) by the hypocritical Pharisees, whom Griffith links through editing to the modern story's self-righteous female reformers. We see our Lord perform the miracle at the marriage of Cana and protect the woman taken in adultery. The movie crosscuts between his crucifixion and the worker of the modern story on his way to the scaffold.

The French story is set in 16th century France during the persecution of Protestants and the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. A young Protestant couple (Margery Wilson and Eugene Pallette) provide the segment's rooting interest, and, as proof of Griffith's ecumenism, they're linked through editing to the Catholic pair of the modern story. The villains are the French royalty led by Catherine de Medici (Josephine Crowell), not the Catholic clergy who are shown saving Protestant children from slaughter.

The final story takes place in Babylon in the sixth century B.C. A Baal-worshipping priest (Tully Marshall) betrays his country's crown prince (Alfred Paget), “an apostle of tolerance and religious freedom,” to the Persians. Griffith gives his audience a heroine whose virtues he thought had contemporary relevance, an independent-minded female called the Mountain Woman (Constance Talmadge). She fights valiantly with the male warriors against the invaders. The crowd scenes and the battles are some of the most spectacular ever filmed, with strong emotional impact because of their connection to the main characters' personal lives.

Intolerance was a financial flop.

The continuous crosscutting between the various stories confused the audiences of that time. But when screened today by viewers conditioned by MTV, its techniques seem perfectly intelligible if, at times, heavy-handed. The performances appear intimate and subtle, dramatizing the movie's Christian themes with sincerity and passion. Present-day Hollywood could learn something from this neglected old master.

John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.