When the word “ambitious” is applied to a movie, it generally means something that is bigger and fuller, with a larger, more vast canvas and wider scope than most films strive for.
With modern movies, “ambitious” also tends to refer to an excessive use of CGI (computer graphics imagery) to create that bigness, especially in an outer space or aliens-on-Earth context. And usually with a lot of stuff blowing up.
In fact, many of these films now use so much CGI that they could be Oscar-nominated in the best animated-film category.
So it seems fitting that the Cohen Film Collection, a boutique home-video label, has issued a new edition of D.W. Griffith’s 1916 silent epic “Intolerance” to remind us that movies once trafficked in realistic replication by using hands-on materials.
Carpenters would build storefronts, construct city streets and sometimes create entire towns, or location scouts would find an existing mansion or a ranch or a farm or an entire village that could be rented for shooting purposes.
This allowed actors to interact with three-dimensional sets instead of a blank green screen whose details would be added later by an artist sitting at a computer.
It wasn’t always all that realistic in the olden days, of course. Before shooting on location became more common, many movies used miniature models and painted backgrounds that looked phony — and with high-definition, big-screen televisions, the fakery is even more noticeable.
But sometimes the results could be quite astonishing. That’s certainly true of the colorful, widescreen, grandiose biblical or sword-and-sandal films of the 1950s and ’60s, but it was also true of the earliest pioneers in that realm.
One of the earliest was Griffith, and “Intolerance” is arguably the most compelling example. And this cleaned up, repackaged version, with a wonderful Carl Davis music score, is the best you’ll find on home video (Cohen, 1916, b/w, two discs, silent with intertitles, new featurette with historian Kevin Brownlow; 16-page booklet with two essays; on Blu-ray, $49.98, and DVD, $39.98).
According to the booklet’s essays, by film historian William M. Drew, author of two books on Griffith and his work, and Richard Porton, an editor at the New York film magazine Cineaste, “Intolerance” is a groundbreaking picture on many levels.
This was Griffith’s follow-up to the controversial “The Birth of a Nation,” and some pundits suggest it was an apology for that film, though Drew and Porton are having none of that.
The four stories of “Intolerance” unfold from different periods of history to explore, as an opening title card explains: “ how hatred and intolerance, though all ages, have battled against love and charity.”
The first image we see is Griffith’s frequent muse Lillian Gish, literally portraying the hand that rocks the cradle, followed by a prologue for each story, which accounts for the first half hour — and Griffith is just warming up.
First comes the “modern” story, circa 1916 (today it plays as a period piece), with a charitable movement inadvertently causing unemployment, which in turn will drive one laid-off worker to turn to crime. Second is the story of the birth, life and crucifixion of Jesus. Third, the 16th century St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France. And finally, the fall of Babylon in 6th century B.C.
Each of these four tales focuses on characters who become embroiled in love and hate and troubled times, but despite the vastness of his canvas, Griffith knows how to make their stories intimate, allowing the audience to easily identify with them — even as he cross cuts from one to another throughout the film, building to a climactic crescendo.
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