In this era of blockbusters, casting as wide a net as possible seems to be the top priority. Films must appeal to four quadrants, and do their best to keep from alienating any particular group of people if they hope to break the bank. Consequently, we’ve got a lot of middle brow, virtually amoral stuff dominating the box office these days, and any property with even the most remote familiarity gets preferential treatment over a novel or daring new venture. The current climate doesn’t really lend itself to stepping out on a ledge.
Intolerance (subtitled Love’s Struggle Through The Ages) is a particularly peculiar epic, wildly ambitious, extravagant, and shamelessly social minded. It truly wears its heart on its sleeve, and the sheer spectacle of it staggers to this day. With its brutal battle scenes, enormously detailed sets and costumes, and countless extras, its the rare production whose achievement has actually been amplified with time. It’s structure is particularly daring as well, with a story that spans millennia while intercutting four parallel plots: the struggles of a 1916 young lower class couple, the events leading up to France’s St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, Christ’s mission and death, and finally the fall of the Babylonian empire. That’s what the press material says, at least. Christ gets pretty short shrift, appearing in only a few scenes in the hopes of imbuing the other storylines with some biblical significance.
Inevitably, Intolerance can feel pretty dated. It’s nearly one hundred years old, after all, and its depictions of intolerance can seem pretty short sighted to a modern audience. It doesn’t address the modern hot buttons of race, gender, or sexuality at all, and it doesn’t seem particularly concerned with social equality or the inherent insidiousness of subjugation. In fact, in a rather embarrassing choice, suffragettes are pretty mercilessly vilified. They exploit a rich spinster for political power, and then use their new found strength to rob a women of her child. There’s kind of a persistent contempt for the social climbing middle class, actually. In Intolerance, Kings, Princes, and Governors are noble and kindhearted. Its the usurpers that are evil. With our modern sensibilities that constantly question and mistrust authority, those parables don’t really land. Birthright and entitlement aren’t exactly things most of can get behind.
Intolerance’s depictions of its villains also can make it feel like a bit of a relic. For a film ostensibly about acceptance, it sure doesn’t pass the basic test of treating your enemies with love and respect. From the aforementioned suffragettes, to the effete Monsieur La France, to the faceless hordes of Cyrus and the evil Priest, Intolerance can lean pretty hard on shallow caricatures of evil to express its point. And though certainly ambitious, the storytelling isn’t particularly sophisticated. Naturally, the plotlines don’t really have any bearing on each other, and the modern day (relatively speaking) tale of The Boy and The Dear One is pretty clumsily executed. His courting of her is aggressive and villainous seeming from a modern perspective, but the film doesn’t treat it as such. His supposed redemption and abandonment of his life of crime is similarly facile and overly simplistic. He merely severs his ties with the local crime boss, and we as an audience are supposed to reembrace him as a pure soul. But he pays no penance. If we are to believe in his redemption, it has to be tested. We need to see a tangible change in his behavior. He needs to rescue when he would have exploited, show charity when before he would have stolen. Merely saying he’s changed rings hollow.
Obviously, Intolerance needs to be evaluated through the prism of the era in which it was made. Like I said, it’s still a pretty amazing piece of big budget film making. Certain stunts, props, and battle scenes are pretty jaw dropping. The enormity and splendor of its Babylon will always be magnificent to behold, and seeing people getting decapitated in a film from 1916 will always be a pleasant surprise. It also may not be totally fair to criticize its lack of civil foresight. In the end, its heart is generally in the right place. It seeks to imbue the little guy with some dignity, be they poor hoodlum or mannerless Mountain Girl. Its final image of a loving heaven bringing an end to war and turning a prison into a field of flowers captures the spirit of the picture: sweet, sentimental, and just a little bit quaint. Intolerance truly tries to communicate lessons and emotions it values, courageously and unselfconsciously. Big Budget film making is far more guarded these days, often to its detriment.