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Four separate stories are interwoven: the fall of Babylon, the death of Christ, the massacre of the Huguenots, and a contemporary drama, all crosscut and building with enormous energy to a thrilling chase and finale. Through the juxtaposition of these well known sagas, Griffith joyously makes clear his markedly deterministic view of history, namely that the suffering of the innocents makes possible the salvation of the current generation, symbolized by the boy in the modern love story.
For more about Intolerance and the Intolerance Blu-ray release, see Intolerance Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on October 28, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Director: D.W. Griffith
Writers: D.W. Griffith, Tod Browning, Frank E. Woods
Starring: Lillian Gish, Miriam Cooper, Bessie Love, Mae Marsh, Eugene Pallette, Robert Harron
» See full cast & crew
Intolerance Blu-ray Review
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, October 28, 2013
Films come and go in such huge quantities and with such an ephemeral nature that more often than not today's sensation is tomorrow's forgotten "masterpiece". Our society has only become more prone to attention deficit disorder as time has marched solidly on through any number of new media distractions. And so isn't it rather remarkable that Intolerance should have remained so iconic for so long, especially when one considers that for many, both casual viewers and experts alike, the film is one of those "must see—once" events that is perhaps better appreciated as a symbol than for any intrinsic worth? While that assessment may be questionable (at the very least), Intolerance stands tall as one of the crowning achievements of silent cinema. This gargantuan production runs for a rather staggering two-plus hours (there are several extant versions available), utilizes a then unusual cross cutting technique that simultaneously unfolds four stories from radically different time periods, and contains some of the most gigantic set pieces—and sets, for that matter—ever assembled in the history of film. David Wark Griffith had just experienced unbelievable success with The Birth of a Nation in 1915, but had also found himself mired in controversy because of that film's patently shocking portrayal of African Americans and its lionization of the Ku Klux Klan. Restorer and archivist Kevin Brownlow, who oversaw this restoration of Intolerance and who appears on a fascinating supplement included on this two disc set, dismisses some of the widely held notions that Intolerance is therefore an "apology" for The Birth of a Nation, and he points to one salient fact to back up his assertions: of all the examples of prejudice floating through Griffith's immense epic, there is absolutely no mention of racial bigotry, at least when directed at blacks. Griffith's motives notwithstanding, Intolerance is an astounding film experience, one that indeed any serious student to film absolutely must see—and I would argue more than merely once—if he or she is to understand the history of the art form, for Griffith's approach in Intolerance most certainly influenced generations of filmmakers and created a template for what would ultimately become known as an "event film" or "historical epic".
Though many have drawn a through line directly from The Birth of a Nation to Intolerance, Brownlow correctly points out that more appropriate antecedents, at least in terms of Intolerance's epic scale, would be two Italian silents, 1912's Quo Vadis and 1914's Cabiria, both of which D.W. Griffith had seen and been blown away by. But Griffith really didn't set out to make his follow up to The Birth of a Nation even be an epic. He had instead been working on a contemporary moral drama called The Mother and the Law. In fact, as Brownlow also relates, once Griffith did decide to start adding the different time frames and attendant stories, he temporarily named them The Mother and the Law #2, The Mother and the Law #3 and The Mother and the Law #4. But Griffith's most distinctive contribution to film technique was his ultimate decision to cross cut between these four disparate tales, allowing each of them to comment upon each other. It may not have exactly been montage theory as it was later espoused by Eisenstein, but it came close. Ironically, this approach was confounding to audiences who first saw the film in 1916 and that, along with the film's rather unwieldy length, contributed to Intolerance being a huge financial failure, doing more than its fair share to wipe away the untold millions Griffith had reaped a mere few months earlier with The Birth of a Nation.
Griffith confounds expectations—at least for those who probably assumed he was a right wing zealot based on The Birth of a Nation—by taking a decidedly left leaning, rabble rousing, labor sympathizing reformer stand in the most modern story of the quartet of interlocking tales in Intolerance. A young couple known only as The Boy (Robert Harron) and The Dear One (Mae Marsh) find their lives turned upside down by the dastardly activities of ruthless capitalists (including a thinly veiled version of John D. Rockefeller) and, perhaps even more troublingly, a gaggle of doyennes whose mission in life is to make everyone conform to their ideas of morality (sound familiar?). Things quickly go from bad to worse in this story, with The Boy eventually incarcerated and facing the gallows, while The Dear One suffers stoically, even though her baby has been taken from her by the "moral police".
Playing alongside this tale of woe are three historical epochs, including a rather brief tour of Jesus' (Howard Gaye) last days, as well as two other eras where innocent "civilians" get caught up in huge historical maelstroms. One of these is the 16th century French Catholic persecution of the Huguenots, which wreaks havoc on a young couple played by Margery Wilson and a completely unrecognizable Eugene Pallette, miles away from his portly comic portrayals of the 1930s and 1940s. The other, perhaps Intolerance's most famous set of sequences, depicts the calamitous intersection of Persia and Babylon, with Babylon getting the short end of the sacred idol. A so-called Mountain Girl (Constance Talmadge, who also appears in the French story as another character) finds herself caught between both the social and religious morés of conflicting cultures and belief systems. This storyline includes the massive set that has become Intolerance's most indelible image (see screenshot 3), a towering structure which was the biggest set ever built to that time. Literally tens of thousands of extras were utilized in several enormous set pieces in this tale.
There's no avoiding the fact that Intolerance can indeed seem clunky some of the time, and my hunch is, it even seemed that way to awestruck 1916 audiences, perhaps one reason the film was such a resounding flop. The three historical stories, even that of Jesus, seem too artificial to really connect with audiences, and the recurrent trope culled from Walt Whitman's line "out of the cradle endlessly rocking" seems to only indicate that the film, like time itself, may never end. But from a historical perspective, the importance of Intolerance simply can't be understated. Not only is its intercutting technique revolutionary, Griffith handles the camera with what was then fairly unusual uses of tracking, dollying and even crane shots. He almost single handedly helped to create the vocabulary for the epic film with Intolerance, and many of his techniques are still in use today.
From a dramatic standpoint, it's probably true that only the "modern" story really resonates, and in fact there's a good reason that Griffith excised it and released it as a standalone film (included on the second disc of this two disc set). That of course is the ultimate irony about Intolerance—Griffith had originally only set out to make The Mother and the Law, and then branched out in a huge mutation that saw him include the three other storylines, when really it was his first concept that turned out to be the best. While there's a nihilistic quality to the story of The Boy and The Dear One, there is undeniable tension built up when it appears that The Boy is in fact going to meet his maker before justice can finally be served. Thankfully one other artifice Griffith helped establish was the happy ending.
Intolerance Blu-ray, Video Quality
Intolerance is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of Cohen Film Collection with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 1.33:1. The progressive presentation may put off some who are more sensitive to the algorithms of silent film fps protocols and how they fold into Blu-ray authoring requirements for 24 fps progressive presentations. While I've seen many sources reporting various silent films repeating a rather wide disparity of frames (everything from every fifth or sixth to every eighteenth and beyond) to support a progressive presentation, my entirely unscientific research on Intolerance suggests that in this case it's every third or fourth frame that is being repeated—whether that will alleviate any perceived motion issues or exacerbate them I will leave to those with this particular acuity, as I frankly have never been overly bothered by previous silents presented progressively, and in fact I saw little if any difference between the progressive and interlaced presentations of The Phantom of the Opera (24 fps in 1080p, 20 fps in 1080i) with regard to fluidity of motion.
This version runs 168 minutes (2:47:32 to be exact) and so the frame speed may have been increased since several sites state this version "should" run 197 minutes or thereabouts. That said, I certainly noticed no overt "sped up" syndrome in any of the motion. The Thames Silents Restoration which served as the source for this release was initially overseen by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill in 1989, and according to the press sheets accompanying the Blu-ray release, also received further digital restoration as well as a 2K scan by Cohen for this release. The results are fairly miraculous, at least for those of us who grew up on hideous looking public domain issues of the film sourced from horrible looking 16mm prints. There are obviously quite a few issues inherent in the source elements—scratches, missing frames, etc.—but when compared to previous releases of Intolerance, well—to my eyes, anyway, there is no comparison. Many of the most prominent instances of damage have been wiped away, without destroying grain structure. In fact, one almost has to get one's nose right to the screen to even see some of the scratches now, so minimal have they become. It should be stated that due to the reinstatement of the original tints, grain appears to be variable. It tends to be much more visible in the untinted sequences as well as the sepia and blue tinted ones than in the reddish-purple tinted sequences, where it all but disappears.
The image, while certainly not crystal clear or "sharp" by today's standards, is remarkably precise. Fine detail is minimal, if only because Griffith only uses close-ups very sparingly, and even then, often with irises employed (see screenshot 7 for a good example of a non-irised close-up). Density and contrast issues are slight, but noticeable, lending a quasi-flicker sporadically throughout the presentation. Aside from the damage restoration, there are no signs of artificial sharpening or other digital tweaking. Having owned several versions of Intolerance going back to the VHS days, I can state without qualification that this is easily the best looking version I've personally seen.
Intolerance Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Intolerance offers Carl Davis' magnificent score (built almost entirely on a C minor motive which then expands and contracts in magical ways over the course of the next two-plus hours) in either DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 or DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Davis, who I felt channeled Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony for his wonderful theme music for The World at War, here forsakes outright homages or pastiches to create a remarkable blending of tone with image. (He does liberally quote the Dies Irae at some of the more dramatic moments.) The score is really resplendent sounding in the 5.1 mix and I highly recommend that option for those with the appropriate setup. Not only are the surround channels fully engaged, the score breathes much more convincingly in the 5.1 mix, with a much fuller sounding midrange and lower range. Fidelity is superb and dynamic range is extremely wide.
Intolerance Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The second disc of this two disc set contains these supplements:
Intolerance Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Yes, you must see Intolerance at least once if you have any interest in the history of film. The good news is, with this often stunning restoration, chances are you're going to watch it again. While I wish this release had included some kind of commentary (there are two good essays in the insert booklet), otherwise this is a topflight release and one of the most impressive high definition presentations of a silent film I've yet seen. Highly recommended.
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Intolerance Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Exclusive Giveaway: Intolerance - November 1, 2013
Blu-ray.com and Cohen Film Collection are offering five members a chance to win a copy of Intolerance. This mammoth 1916 silent film is often included in lists of the most historically important films ever made. Intolerance arrives on Blu-ray restored and ...
• Intolerance (1916) Blu-ray Detailed - October 21, 2013
Cohen Media Group has detailed the Cohen Film Collection release of D.W. Griffith's silent cinema milestone, Intolerance, starring Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Elmo Lincoln, Robert Harron and Constance Talmadge. The groundbreaking 1916 epic arrives on Blu-ray on November ...
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