By G. Michael Dobbs
In this week’s movie column, a monumental film is restored and presented to a new generation of film fans.
The new Blu-Ray edition of “Intolerance” is, like the film itself, a staggering achievement. Director D. W. Griffith’s follow-up film to his hit film “Birth of a Nation” is one of the true classics of American cinema and the extras on this disc will certainly make it more accessible.
In 1915, Griffith stunned moviegoers with “The Birth of a Nation,” an openly racist feature film about the reconstruction South and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. The film was made quite problematic because of Griffith’s innovation in direction, staging of huge battle scenes and establishing the basic vocabulary of motion pictures with use of the close-up, medium and long shots. In other words, it’s a great treatment of a terrible story.
His follow-up film was “Intolerance” in 1916. With a running time of more than three hours, the film had four stories that were edited together. There is a contemporary one set in a small town and deals with the lives of the working class. There is also the life of Jesus depicted, as well as the story of the Huguenots being persecuted by the Catholic royalty in France. The final story is about an attack on ancient Babylon.
Each of these segments show how intolerance and hatred have been part of human existence for centuries.
The way to watch this film is to view the interview with film historian Kevin Brownlow first. There is a second disc of extras and Brownlow’s explanation of how the film was made and released is invaluable.
The version of the film used on Blu-Ray is the one restored by Brownlow and David Gill for British television. It features a magnificent orchestral score by Carl Davis that is the perfect accompaniment.
The difficulty with the film is simply the narrative bulk. Intercutting two stories wasn’t something audiences were used to in 1916. Weaving together four stories was astonishing. It’s still astonishing – and sometimes confusing – today.
When “Intolerance” did not make back its money, Griffith, as Brownlow explained, cut out the modern American story and the Babylonian tale and made them stand-alone feature films in order to recoup some of his investments. The Blu-Ray producers have included both films as extras.
That was shrewd on Griffith’s part. “The Mother and the Law” is quite the melodrama with a real dose of social criticism, while “The Fall of Babylon” is a fantastic spectacle.
I think it’s a fair guess that most people watching films today have never seen a silent film. This is not the one that I would suggest as a starting point, but for adventurous and serious film lovers “Intolerance” is something to experience.
Quick takes of films now on DVD
“White House Down” is one of the most derivative action thrillers I’ve suffered through in a long time. Essentially a “Die Hard” movie without Bruce Willis, this attack on the White House by domestic terrorists is predictable and silly.
“Man of Steel” showed that director Zack Snyder simply couldn’t control himself in this adaptation of the origin story of Superman. He doesn’t understand how to tell a straightforward story without padding scenes that don’t need any expansion. Although there are some great elements of the film, including solid performances from Henry Cavill and Amy Adams and outstanding visual effects, I found this version of Superman to be tedious.
“The World’s End” is the third collaboration between Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright and is a worthy comedic companion to “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.” I’m going to buy this one.