Intolerance

AFI Rank: #49 (10th anniversary ranking)
Year Released: 1916
Director: D.W. Griffith
Actors: Lillian Gish, Douglas Fairbanks, Spottiswoode Aitken, Mary Alden, Frank Bennett

It's very clear how Intolerance - which wasn't on the original AFI Top 100 listing - somehow launched into the #49 spot on the 10th anniversary listing. It all has to do with director D. W. Griffith's previous work, Birth of a Nation.

Birth of a Nation was on the first listing. It certainly represented a stellar moment in moviemaking. It earned the #44 spot in the first ever ranking of all movies. Griffith, back in 1915, had achieved quite a momentous milestone. He had made a silent film which had a full cast, beautiful scenery, an engaging storyline, and situations which would get the world talking. Unfortunately for Griffith, the content of that film was black-bashing in some of the vilest forms we have seen in movies before or since. I did a full review of Birth of a Nation, and in it I talk about how stunned I was to watch this unfold before me. Trying to judge it on its "technical merits", I explain, is like trying to judge the culinary merits of a fine dinner made from chopped-up baby. There is just no way to separate out what is being experienced from how foul the whole concept is.

There was HUGE outcry when the AFI put this movie onto their first Top 100 listing. Yes, again, I understand it was groundbreaking. And even so, I was not happy having it on the list.

Intolerance was Griffith's next work. Even in 1915 there was an enormous outcry against Birth of a Nation and people around the world accused Griffith of being racist. He made this movie in an attempt to redeem himself. One could say that Birth of a Nation was a mere stepping stone to the even fuller presentation of storyline, epic landscapes, casts of thousands, and other lush filmmaking technologies that Griffith presented here. I.e. this is not just a "consolation prize" for having Birth of a Nation ejected. It really does deserve to be on the AFI list in its own right.

You have to settle in for a long haul here. It's over 3 hours long, with subtitles that hang on the screen for seemingly hours at a time. There are long shots of men staring up at the sky and women staring with wild eyes at the screen. Pour a glass of wine. Or two. Be patient.

You get four different intertwined stories. Jesus and his crucifixion. The Huguenots being slaughtered in France. The Babylonians being taken down by jealousy. And workers struggling to live in "modern day" 1916. We see how little humans have changed over the years. We still love and dream, we hate and fear, we launch out after goals and we are struck down by fate. We never know, until the end, how each story will end up. (Well I suppose we know how the Christ story will end up).

And, surprisingly, where so many other movies even today barely feature a female character except to have her be a "arm candy" for the men, we have a wealth of characters of all styles here in Intolerance. We have upper class and prostitutes. We have rich kings and struggling slaves. We have elegant clothes and nearly-naked people. The Mountain Girl picks up a bow and fights along side the men. "Musketeers" - or gang lords - ruled the streets in the early 1900s. Corruption was rampant. There was corruption in the French court, and in Babylon too. Humanity faces the same issues over and over again.

Yes, sometimes the film is a bit heavy-handed in its message. I think it's important to remember the outrage that Griffith had just faced, that he was now trying to overcome. To his credit, the sets are enormous and the wealth of characters is fairly stunning. So many movies of the time were just about rich white men and what they did in life. Here we get a wide variety of characters to relate to.

Well recommended, both as a stage of moviemaking history and as an interesting view of the human condition.

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AFI Top 100 Film Listing
Male vs Female Actors in the AFI Top 100
The Bechdel Test in the AFI Top 100