This is no 5 on the 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die, which just gives you an idea of how fast I’m going, seeing as I got the book a year ago . . . but look, even if I go no further in the book, I’ve seen an absolute masterpiece in this film.
But I’ve known that since I was 16. I first heard about Intolerance in some review somewhere in a newsletter by a Christian historian that my Dad subscribed to and I remember being intrigued by the concept. At the time, however, I thought that I’d never see the film, because where are you going to find a film like that in Brisbane?
The answer turned out to be, to my surprise, at my local library. I was hunting for something on the catalogue one day and discovered that I could order the VHS (this was definitely pre-DVD) in from another library. So I went ahead and ordered it in and got hold of the Hollywood House VHS version of Intolerance.
Now, a word about Hollywood House. Those of you who were collectors of videos back in the 80s may remember that, in Australia, Hollywood House was a video distributor that specialised in releasing cheap and nasty versions of old classic films that had found themselves in the public domain. And a film from 1916 fitted into that category.
VHS was never all that good for film presentation (as we discovered when we switched to DVD), but most videos looked like DVD compared to the picture quality rolled off by Hollywood House. It was horrendous. Image brightness flickered from frame to frame. The frame would wobble. I’m not sure what they did (or didn’t do) to get that, but it was rubbish.
Then there was the music. Obviously, there print of Intolerance didn’t ship with a score, so they’d made one up by randomly playing movements of classical works throughout the film. It was a complete and utter mishmash, including one 40 minute stretch where they just put on Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade and let it run. And, to this day, I still consider the 2nd movement of Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony to be the theme from Intolerance.
But despite all this, I fell in love with the film. For those who haven’t seen or heard of it, the director’s idea was to tell four tales of Intolerance – but simultaneously. So, like a piece of music with various themes, the film crosscuts between four stories: a “modern” (1916!) tale of a young couple being persecuted by unjust social workers and big business owners, the fall of Babylon to the Persians, the St Bartholomew Days’ Massacre in France in the 1600s where the French Protestant Huguenots were slaughtered by the Catholics and, finally, the life of Jesus Christ.
Not equal screen time is given to each stories. The modern tale gets the most airtime, closely followed by the Babylon story. The French story has characters, but they serve more to drive the plot along rather than to have any chance to breathe. And the story of Christ serves more as a chance to insert iconic Christian images in the midst of the other stories to add gravitas to the whole proceedings.
In some ways, this film is mad. The philosophy of the director seems a bit crazy – on the one hand, it seems like a Christian film, because of all the Christ references and Bible verses – but on the other hand, it portrays the fall of Babylon (an event described in the Bible as the catalyst for the exiled Israelites being able to return to their homelands after 70 years in captivity) as being a total tragedy. So it’s a bizarre mixture of sacred and profane.
And it’s really old-fashioned. Someone called it a “cinema sermon against bigotry” and it is. The closest modern equivalent to this type of director would be Oliver Stone.
And yet – despite all that – it works. I think the secret of it is fourfold:
1) Crosscutting storylines actually works better for modern audiences than ever before. We’re a generation that likes to multitask. We switch channels while watching TV, we tweet while answering emails. So to watch four stories at once like this is really engaging. As soon as one gets boring, the film switches to another one.
2) It shows the power of editing. If you were to watch the four stories linearly (ie one after another), you might be interested, but it would get a bit tedious after a while. But when you’re watching all four at once, especially towards the end when all four stories climax at the same time, it’s unbelievably powerful cinema. Intolerance takes its time to get going (it’s over 3 hours long) but when it hits its stride, its an unstoppable visual force.
3) Silent filmmakers understood the importance of visceral images. When you don’t have sound, you can’t effectively make a talking film with lots of captions. Instead, you have to create images that will grab people, regardless of whether they know what people are saying. And Intolerance delivers that in spades. There are women being threatened, crowds being shot at, babies being snatched from their mother’s arms. You see images like this, under any circumstances, and it puts fire in your blood. (Which is exactly what the film was designed to do.)
4) Finally, it has something for everyone. There’s stuff in there for historians, people who love spectacular visual spectacles, drama/romance buffs who want some melodrama, war fans who want epic battle scenes, and action buffs who want car chases.
It got a mixed reception when it was released in America, but in Russia, it was very popular, because it showed that there was a way to make cinema preach a message, and it inspired a generation of filmmakers there.
The only problem with seeing it nowadays is that of all the DVDs that are available, none of them really has a soundtrack that does this film justice. Despite my gentle knocking of Hollywood House video above, with its random jukebox of classical music, they did actually succeed in giving the film a big sweeping orchestral score – so despite the occasional mismatching of classics, on the whole, the effect was to give the film an epic grand feel.
On DVD, the film has been cleaned up rather well (especially if you get the American Kino edition pictured here, which is the best print of the lot of them), but the soundtrack options are rather poor. There is a version of this DVD from the UK by Eureka (that used to be available in Australia, but not any more, from what I see) and it had a Wurlitzer organ soundtrack for three hours which was pretty tough going (apologies to Wurlitzer fans). The Kino video has a mock-orchestral soundtrack played entirely on (cheap) synthesiser and keyboard. It’s a bit more action-specific than the organ, but even then it’s not all that crash hot.
I never got a chance to see it, but apparently in the early 90s, Carl Davis did some orchestral scores for old silent films (Intolerance) included, and I think that would be an interesting watch. Sadly, that’s been unavailable for years.
Anyway, due to its now being out of copyright, you can find this film readily available on the net. This link will take you to a complete version of the film (warning: it’s a bit of an ordinary print) that you watch or download. I’d recommend getting three hours worth of rousing music and watching it with your own soundtrack.
Everyone should see this film at least once.
5 out of 5.