As an editing device, this is quite common today, but in 1916, non-linear storytelling methods took some getting used to for the audience. Hence, the process is explained with a perfunctory title card as the film begins, and over the course of nearly three hours even the most resistant audience member could get used to it.
The Babylonian section of “Intolerance” is by far the biggest and most operatic, with sets that are still astonishing. And Griffith took full advantage of his accomplishment, saving the biggest for last and then revealing it with flourish.
The initial shot of this sequence, at the 18-minute mark, is brought into view slowly as an iris lens opens, allowing us to gradually see an overview of the towering, sculptured walls that rise to the clouds, capped with towers that are filled with extras, a literal cast of thousands. Far below there are palm trees and crowds of people coming and going, along with camels and elephants carrying passengers on their backs. It’s a feast for the eyes and worth hitting the pause button to take it all in before Griffith moves in closer for a more intimate view.
This sequence alone makes the film worthwhile, though, of course, there is much more. Some moments are broadly melodramatic as you might expect from a film that is nearly 100 years old, but for the most part it is amazingly vital and current.
The Cohen “Intolerance” print is nearly three hours in length, though there are versions both longer and shorter out there, given that the film has fallen out of copyright and is in public domain, with lots of different cuts floating around on various DVD labels. And one reason is because Griffith really never finished tinkering with it.
Did you think Steven Spielberg started the “special edition” trend when he re-edited “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and tacked on a new ending in 1980? Actually, you could make a case that Griffith is the father of the re-edited “director’s cut.” Only he never seemed to come up with a definitive version. In fact, he was still reshaping “Intolerance” just before it played at a 1925 New York film festival.
Griffith initially conceived and shot this project as an average-length feature and it was just the modern story, “The Mother and the Law.” But as he developed the larger film, he eventually trimmed down “The Mother and the Law” so it could be inserted into the four-story “Intolerance” narrative. In 1919, however, Griffith re-inserted the deleted scenes and released “The Mother and the Law” as a stand-alone feature.
And a real treat in the Cohen DVD/Blu-ray sets is the complete film of “The Mother and the Law.” Also here is “The Fall of Babylon,” an hourlong version of the Babylon section of “Intolerance,” which Griffith also released independently. (Both have evocative new music scores by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.)
If you’re a film buff, I had you at “new edition.” But if you’re not that into silent cinema, this is an awfully good place to start.
Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." His website is www.hicksflicks.com
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