Intolerance (1916) – D.W. Griffith

This film is remarkable for its early ambition to produce a monumental movie with a cast of thousands, on settings of epic scale. Equally notable is the evidence that the new medium of movies had to learn all over again how to tell a story. Griffith, smarting from charges of prejudice in The Birth of a Nation, chose to present a montage of interwoven scenes depicting incidents of inhumanity in history. The narrative is crudely accomplished through the use of title cards between moving pictures. The thematic line knitting all segments together is a quote from Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle endlessly Rocking,” with a shot of Lillian Gish rocking a large cradle. The text speaks of this work as a “Sun-play of the Ages; A Drama of Comparisons.” The film opens with the setup for a contemporary segment involving the effects of a brutal labor strike on American workers. It centers on the travails of a young girl, called The Dear One and is all very Dickensian, culminating in a Frankie and Johnny-style shooting.

The depiction of Babylon in 539 BCE is most interesting. The scenario centers on a young woman who is so defiant of male attentions that she is forcibly placed on the auction platform in the Marriage Market. She is called Mountain Girl and is quite a character. The King happens by and gives her the freedom she desires. Part of the drama here is in the anger of the priest of Bel-Marduk over the worship of Ishtar. The priest collaborates with Cyrus, King of Persia, great enemy of Babylon. Cyrus marches on the city with huge war machines. The girl disguises herself as a man to fight for her beloved king, Belshazzar. The battle is fierce and costly, but the Babylonians win. There is a victory celebration in the Great Hall and we see the famed elephant statuary for the first time (see Good Morning, Babylon – 1987). There is also a large statue of Ishtar. The festivities include some choreographed dancing. It’s not over yet, however. The priest of Bel has found a way to betray the city to Cyrus. Mountain Girl gets wind of the plot and commandeers a chariot to ride pell-mell back to the palace to warn the king of the approaching hoards of Persians and their allies. She is too late to forestall disaster. The King and his intended bride commit suicide to avoid the disgrace of capture. Mountain Girl takes an arrow and dies. This may be the most elaborate depiction of ancient Babylon in the history of 20th century film production.

The other two stories involve the persecution of Jesus at Jerusalem, and the French persecution of the Huguenots. As the movie hurtles toward its conclusion, the scenes jump with increasing rapidity between storylines. The pace becomes furious as the Dear One races on a train to try and stay the execution of her innocent husband, the French indulge in a bloody orgy of killing on the day of the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre, a mob of Judeans follows Jesus to Calgary, and the battle for Babylon reaches its climax. All the while, Gish keeps the cradle rocking.

Good Morning, Babylon (1987) – Italian

An Italian film by two brothers about two Italian brothers who come to America and end up working for D.W. Griffith on his 1916 film, Intolerance. The brothers do not speak English and the first part of the movie is subtitled, but it switches to English when they come to America. They come from a long line of Tuscan artisans, and their contribution to Intolerance can be seen in the great elephants that line the Babylon set. The film seems to want to make a statement about the importance of film in the great tradition of Western art, but the point is lost in a jumble of seemingly unconnected events. What is most notable in this work is the portrait of the enigmatic Griffith. The opening of Intolerance in 1916 is marred by rioters who object to its anti-war message.

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