Judge Daryl Loomis thinks anytime is a good time for onions.
Love's struggle through the ages.
After D.W. Griffith finished The Birth of a Nation, his racially disturbing, but hugely successful and innovative 1915 opus, he wanted to do something a little bit different. Inspired by the incredible Italian epic, Cabiria, he got his big idea. And by big, I mean completely gigantic. While the result wasn't as popular with the public, Intolerance is a true masterpiece of the cinema, one of the most innovative films, both technically and artistically, ever produced, and finally, after all these years, it has been given its fair due on home video.
Facts of the Case
Four stories tell the tale of the world's history of love, hatred, and intolerance. First, a modern story about a young woman whose life falls apart as her baby is taken from her by social reformers and her boyfriend is condemned for a murder he didn't commit. Then we go back in history, to Catherine de Medici's 16th Century persecution of the Huguenots, to the age of Jesus Christ and his persecution by the Romans, and to the Fall of Babylon. Each of these stories features a love story torn apart by their respective situations.
Rather than showing them in sequence, these four stories are intercut with one another thematically to show how love in the face of hatred never changes. Various points in the film are punctuated by a young mother (Lillian Gish, The Scarlet Letter) rocking her baby to sleep. It's a technique that has rarely been used since for the exact reason why audiences didn't flock to see Intolerance as they had Griffith's previous pictures: it makes the overall story way too confusing. But that's really the only problem with a movie that, otherwise, is nearly perfect in its execution.
Originally, the movie was supposed to be the modern story alone, but Griffith realized he had something much bigger afoot, so added these historical dramas to further accentuate his thematic material. Had he kept it as his initial idea, the plot would have been less muddled and, almost assuredly, would have been a big hit with audiences, but would likely have been just another in a long line of Griffith films that few outside of silent film aficionados would appreciate. It's a good thing he expanded it, because in spite of that muddled story, it became likely the most massive artistic production ever undertaken and an absolute must-see film for anybody even remotely interested in the history of film.
The most memorable part, of course, is the Babylon sequences, not for its subtle storytelling, which it couldn't be farther from, but for its sheer size and spectacle. Literally a cast of thousands was used in it, along with what could well have been life-sized replicas of the city. This is something that, today, could easily be done on green screen, but nothing beat the visceral appeal of individuals being reduced to ants by the set on which they're working. It's not the most delicate or polished part of the film, but it's the most fun.
Story-wise, the modern story is definitely the highlight, though. It isn't just that it's the most fully formed plot (or, fairly, the only actually formed plot at all), it's the direct jab at the reform movement, which wanted to take all these women drinking and dancing in restaurants and force them into their vision of morality, and at John D. Rockefeller as the thinly veiled villain. This is definitely a pro-union piece, as it depicts the massacre of workers as they strike against clear injustices against them.
The Huguenots story and Christ piece don't get the same amount of play as the other two, with the latter getting the least screen time, and neither is even close to as impressive. All four feature the same idea, though; the idea that, within these big conflicts, individuals in love suffer most. I don't know that Griffith gets the point across as clearly as he could have, but it's always interesting to see his perspective on history. Ultimately, for whatever confusions happen within the storytelling, each story is pretty great to watch for the artistic and technical mastery that comes through in spades during the movie. It's long, but it's an amazing piece of work that should be seen by all.
As brilliant as Intolerance is, the most important thing here is the restoration. From E1, this 2-disc Blu-ray proves exactly why the Cohen Media Group is quickly becoming the gold standard. There have been many public domain versions of this film to arrive on VHS and DVD and they looked truly awful. The only concession was the fact that the film was available to watch. Now, though, Intolerance looks absolutely amazing in comparison to its own previous releases or to any modern silent restoration.
It's not completely perfect, but how could it be; it's very nearly a century old, but the work done is remarkable. There are a few frames missing here and there and a little bit of damage to the print that still exists, but it's kept to a minimum. The greater majority of it looks fantastic. The clarity is amazing, given its age, with detail that has never been seen before. The contrast is strong and the grain is natural; all in all, I'm thrilled with it. Some might quibble about the frames that had to be removed to make the 1.33:1/1080p transfer work, but that's nit-picking. I've had to watch this looking like garbage for years and, even if it isn't perfect, it's as close as it's going to get. The sound is, of course, limited to Carl Davis' musical score, but it's a 5.1 Master Audio mix that sounds very good and it's one of the best scores the composer (who I tend not to like very much) has ever produced.
We get an interesting mix of special features on the second disc, as well. First, we get two additional films: his recut versions of the modern story and the Babylon story. The first, The Mother and the Law, the modern story, shows Griffith at his storytelling best. It's clear how easily he creates drama and suspense, pulling strong performances from the entire cast and, had I not seen the movie, I would have wondered if it was going to get the rarely seen dark ending in early film. It's an excellent stand-alone picture that is kind of mean. The Fall of Babylon definitely doesn't have the same power of plot, but the spectacle is certainly there and that's really enough, because nothing like it has existed since. The disc continues with an interesting twenty minute interview with historian Kevin Barlow on the legacy of the film and it closes with the new restoration trailer.
Intolerance is definitely a strange film. It's non-linear and confusing, but also one of the most beautiful combinations of art and artifice cinema has ever seen with some of the most memorable sequences in history. It's an experience that still registers as amazing a century after its release and it now has the release it deserves. This edition of Intolerance on Blu-ray is a must own for silent film fans and, personally, is the best release I've reviewed this year.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
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