Sunday, March 29, 2020

Movie Review: "Intolerance" (1916)


Director: D. W. Griffith

Screenplay: D. W. Griffith

Cinematographer: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Howard Gaye as Jesus

Production company: Triangle Distributing Corporation

Initial release: September 5, 1916

Run Time: 197 Min

Director D.W. Griffith is perhaps most know for his groundbreaking but controversial film The Birth of a Nation (1915), but his follow up Intolerance (1916) (which can be seen perhaps partly as a response to accusations of perpetuating racial stereotypes and glorifying the Klu Klux Klan in The Birth of a Nation) is considered by many to be his masterpiece, and indeed the greatest film of the whole silent era. Griffiths mammoth film, also subtitled: "A Sun-Play of the Ages" and "Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages.", consists of four distinct but parallel stories that demonstrated mankind's intolerance during four different ages in world history. Intolerance was a colossal undertaking filled with monumental sets, lavish period costumes, and more than 3,000 extras.

I will not review the entire three hour epic, but will only comment on the the part of the story dealing with Jesus. There are seven scenes dealing with Jesus and the total run time for these is about ten minutes. Known as "The Judean Story", it weaves together with the other three stories. Jesus is called the "greatest enemy of intolerance" in the film, and his story serves as the primary example of the battle between tolerance and intolerance. The scenes are as follows:

7 Mins in - We meet the "certain hypocrites amongst the Pharisees" - depiction of Jesus' parable of the publican and the pharisee (Luke 18:9-14) - "O Lord I thank thee that I am not like other men" [3 minutes long]

54 Minutes in - Marriage at Cana (John 2:1-11), (includes quote "Be ye harmless as doves" (Matt 10:6) and the doves are actually shown), [3:30 minutes long]

64 Minutes in - "Glutinous and a winebibber" (Matt 11:19 ), Adulteress (John 8:12-11) [2:30 minutes long]

85 Minutes in - "Suffer (the) Little Children" (Mark 10:14) [15 seconds long]

138 Minutes in - Via dolorosa [30 seconds long]

159 Minutes in - Via dolorosa [10 seconds long]

171 Minutes in - Crucifixion [5 seconds long]

When it comes to the depiction of Jesus in this film, especially the wedding feast at Cana, the woman caught in adultery, and the Passion and Crucifixion, it is nothing short of spectacular. It was filmed in Hollywood, and it shows. Until this time, this is the high point of the depiction of Jesus in film. The wedding feast at Cana even has a special effect, when a dark cross appears over Jesus as he transforms the water into wine. These epic and spectacular scenes set the standard for film portraits of Jesus for years to come.

This film also touches for the first time the delicate issue of how to represent the responsibility for the death of Jesus. Griffith had a rabbi and an Episcopalian priest as advisors for this film, but he still depicted leaders of the Jewish community as not only persecuting Jesus but also crucifying him. Jewish groups originally protested this, so Griffith burned the negative of what he already shot, and refilmed the crucifixion scene substituting Roman soldiers instead.

On the negative side, Intolerance has an agenda of depicting a strong social message and defending artistic freedom. Griffith uses the figure of Jesus to this end. The Birth of a Nation received a lot of backlash, and in Intolerance he uses Jesus to defend himself against all the "hypocrites" who were intolerant of his artistic freedom. Jesus is primarily portrayed in this film as a victim of intolerance. There is no message of salvation. He is a martyr, not a savior.

Out of a score of 1 to 10, I give the depiction of Jesus in this film an 8.1.