D.W. Griffith followed up his equally groundbreaking and morally repugnant BIRTH OF A NATION, with INTOLERANCE. A film that in its title would have you think “this is a D.W. Griffith that is looking to make some type of amends, some type of balance to his previous films glorification of lynch mob justice and the KKK”.
However you would be wrong.
This is D.W. Griffith that is, I think, taking a piss on the concept of Intolerance, more than any true acknowledgement of anything wrong in his previous filmic stance.
While framed as a film about intolerance, the film at its heart is a followup to the thematic gist of A BIRTH OF A NATION. Whereas BIRTH was about glorifying lynchmobs and the KKK, INTOLERANCE is really about attacking one of the groups that opposed lynchmobs and were critical of Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION, namely the Suffragette movement.
The Suffragette movement was paramount from the end of the civil war into the early 20th century, not just pursuing the right of the vote for women, but supporting causes of the abolitionist movement, anti-lynching campaigns, and labor laws and better pay to protect the men, women and children who were literally being worked to death, in factories in the early part of the 20th century.
And yes, they also were for laws limiting alcohol abuse. And they had reason to be, and reason to see alcohol abuse as one of the great evils of the early part of the 20th century, These newly overcrowded city slums of a newly industrial America, with its sweat shop factories, were a pressure cooker, and men seeking to escape the direness of their work life, would turn to the cheap and legal drug of alcohol after a hard day at the factory, and come home and (in a world before the concept of women’s shelters, or domestic violence) take it out on their wives and families. The cases of murder and abuse were staggering.
It is in to this darkness of an unregulated industrialized overcrowded American cities, that the Suffragette sought to bring some light. But here in INTOLERANCE Griffith is as accomplished making villains as he was making heroes out of cross burners, terrorists and lynchmobs in BIRTH OF A NATION.
Griffith in a dazzling bit of mendacity and manipulative storytelling makes the Suffragette movement the mustache twirling fiends behind robber barons being forced to call in the militia on striking workers and machine gunning them down, or breaking up happy homes.
Thankfully that part is only one story-line of four that makes up Intolerance, but it is one of the most engaging storylines, and that storyline does leave an acrid taste. However it is couched in the other three storylines, and some truly jaw dropping visuals and staging.
For all the moral issues, and the repugnant lies passing as truth in Griffith’s film, what can not be denied is here at the early days of film, it is staggering how amazingly good he was at telling a story, getting a performance and eliciting an emotional response out of you with his camera. He understood, perhaps earlier and more effectively than anyone else, the power of cinema, of media, not to make the truth… but to be the truth.
He understood the power of cinema to make heroes and villains. One of the earliest propaganda filmmakers.
— To be continued