After dividing audiences with his incredibly powerful but racially flawed (and somewhat misogynistic) epic ‘The Birth of a Nation’, pioneering filmmaker D.W. Griffith turned his attention to a much more intimate project he entitled ‘The Mother and the Law’ – a no-holds-barred commentary on poverty and slum-life in modern America that was also an attack on tycoon John D. Rockefeller (especially his involvement in the notorious Ludlow mining-colony massacre), a denouncement of sinister holier-than-thou social reformers, a cruelly accurate depiction of the growing class divide and a heart-pounding indictment of the capital punishment system.

However, even while making ‘The Mother and the Law’ Griffiths wasn’t satisfied his film would be an appropriate follow-up to ‘The Birth of a Nation’. ‘Nation’ had set the bar high and audiences expected gloss and spectacle from Griffiths’ studio, not just dour social commentary. And so he expanded and reworked ‘The Mother and the Law’ into a historical epic that also included the Fall of Babylon, the crucifixion of Christ and the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre when the French King Charles IX was manipulated by his scheming mother Catherine De Medici into sanctioning the slaughter of the Protestant Huguenots.

To tell each of these stories individually would be impressive enough, but Griffiths’ expertly intercut and intertwined the four strands together to create what is still one of the most narratively complex and visually sumptuous motion pictures ever made. He subtitled his film ‘Love’s struggle throughout the ages’.

And he called it ‘Intolerance’.

‘Intolerance’ was the most expensive film ever produced at that time, and there is barely a moment when the money isn’t up there on the screen for all to see, particularly in the still-breathtakingly impressive ‘Fall of Babylon’ sequences. The awesome scale, intricate detail and historical accuracy of the sets – adorned by thousands of magnificently costumed actors and extras – is phenomenal, especially when one considers that Griffiths’ didn’t have today’s cost-cutting matte effects and special effects tricks at his disposal – and the violent battle scenes – involving live elephants, mobile siege towers, flame throwing tanks with scimitar-bladed wheels and bodies thrown from hundred-foot-high walls – remain fantastically brutal. There’s even a decapitation which, although hokey by today’s standards, is still startling enough to make you look twice.

But although ‘Babylon’ is easily the most entertaining story of the quartet, thanks largely to an enchanting central performance by Constance Talmadge as the spunky mountain girl who cheerfully chomps onions while rejecting the advances of amorous suitors, scraps her way out of a marriage auction and then proves a dab-hand with a chariot and a bow-and-arrow, the other three stories are no less compelling (although thankfully the crucifixion of Christ episode is allowed less time than the rest). In fact, the effectiveness of the film doesn’t just lie in the enormous history-engulfing spectacle Griffiths’ sets out before us, but also in the subtle character touches, the romance and the gentle comedy, that he sprinkles throughout. Close-ups are used sparingly, melodramatic schmaltz is kept to a minimum and there are some particularly neat cutaways and slyly brilliant blink-and-you’ll-miss-them reaction shots that will reward repeated viewings.

And yet, if successfully managing to juggle multiple narrative strands wasn’t impressive enough, Griffiths was also a master at pacing his material (especially remarkable considering he allegedly worked without a script). He never lets the energy falter and he controls every story beat with a steady hand while never disjointing the overall arc of the picture – all of the individual episodes remain separate and coherent even while the action in all of them peaks, troughs and escalates in almost exact unison, each story climaxing in a masterful scattershot of expertly-timed and on-target emotional grenades that are variously thrilling, sad, terrifying and triumphant. ‘Intolerance’ is a masterwork that is quite astonishing to watch and the three hours it takes to watch it ultimately feels like no time at all.

So, I guess you can say I’m a fan.

However, after all that obsessive fawning it might surprise you to know that I wasn’t looking forward to putting ‘Intolerance’ in my blu-ray player. I’ve squirmed through the film several times before – in the cinema, on TV, on VHS and DVD – and it’s never been a good experience. The film, almost a century-old, hasn’t been well-served by time and shoddy public domain releases. At best it has been frustrating, at worst it has been unwatchable. There has always been nasty print damage, picture instability, incorrect frame speeds, optical blow-out and ropey and badly misjudged soundtrack accompaniment. For me, despite its reputation as one of the truly great films of all time, ‘Intolerance’ and interrogation by thumbscrews have always been pretty much on the same level.

Not anymore.

Now, thanks to Eureka! and Masters of Cinema, we can finally appreciate ‘Intolerance’ properly and understand what all the fuss was about. The company’s work on this release is nothing short of miraculous. Considering its age and the inevitable degradation of the source material, ‘Intolerance’ looks magnificent. There is astonishing detail in both wide-shots and close-ups, black and white levels are solid and vibrant, picture stability is excellent with minimal jumps and flutters and Carl Davis’ masterful orchestral score is a triumph, probably the best of all his silent film contributions. There aren’t enough superlatives to bestow on this set. Eureka’s 2 disc blu-ray of ‘Intolerance’ is absolutely gorgeous and, in my opinion, is their best release of the year.

It is also worth noting that the second disc in the set is also a joy – full-length ‘standalone’ versions of ‘The Fall of Babylon’ (with – I’m pleased to say – a much happier ending for my favourite character) and Griffiths’ re-edited take of the modern crime and punishment opus that started the whole project off, ‘The Mother and the Law’. There is also a fascinating straight-to-camera essay by film preservationist Kevin Brownlow, who is pretty much the film teacher I always wish I’d had and, completing the package, a fantastic 56-page booklet with essays and vintage and modern reflections and re-evaluations, all extensively illustrated.

‘Intolerance’ isn’t just one of the most important motion pictures ever made, it defines and surpasses what the motion picture camera was invented for. Not just a genius film, it is a timeless historical document and a testament to the power of cinema. Eureka’s new release is an absolute must-own.

Blu-ray Review: Intolerance
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About The Author

Ian White is an author, screenwriter and journalist. His book ‘Witchcraft and Black Magic in British Cult Cinema’ was recently published by Hemlock and he is a regular contributor to ‘Paranormal Underground’ and ‘Starburst’ magazines. He’s currently writing a new book and screenplay and his embarrassingly out-of-date website can be found at http://ianwhitelondon.wix.com/ian-white