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Intolerance is a hard film to talk about, not merely because its complexities make it a difficult work to grapple with. In praising its innovation and influence, one can’t let go of the impetus of its creation. This was a passion project for director D.W. Griffith, though that descriptor doesn’t quite do justice to the fervor with which he pursued its completion. He nearly spent himself into bankruptcy funding the film, and its failure cast him into financial ruin. It was a story he needed to tell. It’s the reason he needed to tell it that distresses me.
Griffith’s best-known and most successful film is, of course, The Birth of a Nation, an monstrously racist work which the KKK credits with its own rebirth. Criticism of the film’s racism isn’t the result of historical analysis, though. In its own time, The Birth of a Nation was lambasted along the same lines. Griffith’s Intolerance is often misread as an apology for The Birth of a Nation, in its exploration of bigotry and persecution throughout human history. In reality, Griffith felt that his critics had completely misconstrued his work. He felt no need to apologize at all. Instead, Intolerance was intended as a response to people whom Griffith felt had been intolerant to him in calling The Birth of a Nation racist.
This is all beyond the text of the film, which means some people will happily discard it from their reading of Intolerance. I don’t begrudge anyone their personal perspectives, but I have some difficulty separating the history of the film with its content. This is especially considering the film’s insistence on centrist waffling despite what should be a distinct point-of-view. Griffith has little sense of how power dynamics color the conflicts he depicts. His intolerance is a mutual affair, with no oppressor or oppressed, only two feuding actors on equal footing.
We see this most clearly in the modern segment, which concerns the battle between capitalist bosses and their workers. In Griffith’s view, each side is as guilty of amorality and violence as the other. The protagonist of this segment, named only “The Boy,” is on no one’s side but his and his wife’s. He ceases to be a worker after a strike, moving to another city and turning to crime. Griffith shows him and his family being caught up in the conflict between bosses and workers. Neither side is fully right or fully wrong.
Griffith betrays his lack of understanding of the ideologies motivating the conflict. He sees it only through the individuals involved and their individual desires. And yet at the same time, everyone in this story is meant to represent a universal type. The Boy is just The Boy, no name of his own. His wife is The Dear One. Her father is The Dear One’s Father. Meanwhile, the villainous boss is given a name, suggesting his autonomy and unique position in the narrative. The Boy is every man, his boss is just Arthur Jenkins. Griffith fails to frame the boss as a part of larger structural violence and intolerance. He is an individual bad actor, nothing more.
The shame of the film’s ideological failings is that its cinematic innovations are so spectacular. The intercutting of various storylines set throughout history, all strung together by a common image (Lillian Gish as The Eternal Motherhood) is undeniably brilliant. Griffith was one of the first filmmakers to use editing to tell his story. With the simple juxtaposition of two disparate narratives, he draws connections and paints a much broader picture. Nothing like it had ever been seen before, and few filmmakers since can be said to have experimented so daringly on such a massive scale. Intolerance became the basis for Soviet editing theory. I find this ironic considering the roots of that theoretical framework in Marxist dialectics and the film’s own lack of coherent ideology, but I digress. Whatever his moral failings, Griffith was a filmmaker of titanic importance and Intolerance completely altered the course of cinematic history. It’s too bad, then, that its reputation is tainted by both its director’s unapologetic racism and its own milquetoast perspective. It’s a perfect example of the ways in which film history is forever stained by wretched bigotry and, yes, intolerance.