Monday, September 29, 2008

Review – Intolerance

September 28, 2008

Intolerance – U.S., 1916

In the early 1900s, a group of women meet to map out a new movement called the Uplifting. Their goal is to “make people good,” yet they are initially vague as to what that means. Almost two thousand years earlier, Pharisees roam the streets of Jerusalem, bringing activity to a halt so that one of them can make the following prayer: “Oh Lord, I thank thee that I am better than other men.” In A.D. 1572, Catherine de Medici makes her disdain for members of the Huguement Party known to her allies, and in 539 B.C., religious insecurity and indignation comes to the forefront as a Priest of Bel watches the image of the goddess Ishtar enter the city. What these characters do as a result of their jealous, vengeful feelings and misplaced good intentions will tragically impact millions of people and show the damage that fanaticism can bring about.

The impact of these four events is vividly shown on both grand and small scales in D.W. Griffith’s 1916 masterpiece Intolerance. In the modern tale, the rise of the Uplifters causes chaos for the workers of a local factory. Seeing sin in liquor and dance, the Uplifters successfully remove both of these from the town’s businesses. In addition, to finance the Uplifter’s activities, the owner of the factory announces a 10% reduction in wages and calls in the police and military to quell the strike that emerges after the decision is made public. Affected by the unemployment and diminished job prospects that follow are four characters: The Boy (Robert Harron), whose father is killed when troops open fire upon strikers; The Father, who is forced to relocate to find employment; The Dear One (Mae Marsh), the father’s rather eccentric daughter; and a woman referred to as the Friendless One (Miriam Cooper). Together, they make their way to the city, where they will endure their fair share of trials and tribulations.

In another time, we see a young carpenter named Jesus acquire a reputation for speaking to and for those whom the Pharisees regard as beneath them. He is scorned for this tendency. Then word of his first miracle, turning water into wine, makes it way to the Pharisees, who may not be able to tolerate someone who is able to do something they cannot. In 1572, we see a young woman referred to as Brown Eyes (Margery Wilson) look lovingly at her sweetheart Prosper Latour (Eugene Pallette). Their love is imperiled not only by the fact that Brown Eyes’ family are members of the Huguement Party but also by the mercenary soldier who sees her and becomes dangerously obsessed with her. In 6th century Babylon, a rough and willful woman referred to as Mountain Girl (Constance Talmage) proves to be more than her brother can handle, so he takes her to court. After she strikes a judge for trying to touch her inappropriately, she is ordered to be taken to a marriage market, where men will bid for the right to marry her. She is saved for this humiliation by Prince Belshazzar (Alfred Paget), who declares that she has the freedom to accept or reject any offer of marriage, a right that she is eternally grateful to receive and will try to repay for the rest of her life.

It may seem like I’ve given away much of the film in my review so far; however, I haven’t. What I have described takes place in the film’s prologue, and Intolerance uses a prologue and two acts to tell its story. As Intolerance progresses, each of its stories advances chronologically, as if they are somehow transpiring simultaneously. The effect of this is quite powerful. In using this technique, Griffith’s allows viewing to get to know and care about many characters early on, and then because we are emotionally involved in the characters, we wait anxiously to discover how they will be affected by the unheaval that is going on around them. Seeing four stories reach their climax simultaneously is an exciting and somewhat exhausting experience.

Two of the stories – those of the Dear One, the Boy, and the Uplifters and Mountain Girl and Prince Belshazzar – get the majority of screen time, and this seems justified because of the sheer number of characters and plot twists that they contain. Intolerance is also impressive to look at. The sets for the Babylonian scenes, as well as those taking place in France, are impressive even by today’s standards. If there is a part of Intolerance that no longer works very well, it is some of the performances, as some of the acting techniques are extremely dated. The mannerisms of both the Dear One and the Mountain Girl make them seem like immature children in need of Ritalin, rather than young naïve women just about to blossom into womanhood, and the King of France comes across as a weak, immature, out-of-control brat.

In spite of this, Intolerance remains an immensely powerful and moving film. It forcefully conveys the harm that seemingly good intentions can cause, for the Uplifters are genuinely doing what they think is right for society. The other three stories graphically depict the horror and sorrow that religious intolerance can bring about, regardless of time or place. I found myself deeply involved in these stories, perhaps because of how universal and timeless the problem of intolerance is.

Intolerance is sometimes talked about as if it were D.W. Griffith’s mea culpa for The Birth of a Nation. That sentiment is unfortunate because it removes from viewers the ability to see Intolerance as an individual film, which it clearly is. While it would have been nice to see Griffith include something about the intolerance and racism that existed in the early 1900s toward African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and even some European-Americans, Intolerance is simple not about those events. It is a film primarily about the peril that comes from some people being convinced that they know the thinking of God and that God is on their side of a war. As Intolerance makes clear, that kind of thinking can - and indeed has - lead to tears, tragedy, and death. (on DVD)

4 and a half stars

*In 2007, Intolerance was ranked #49 on the American Film Institute’s updated list of the top 100 American films of all time.

No comments: