D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance Barrels Forth Like a Freight Train


Out of the cradle endlessly rocking comes a tale interweaving four struggles across centuries. Babylon falls; a man called Christ is persecuted by Romans for being too radical; 16th-century French Catholic rulers slaughter Protestants; and, in modern times, the poor flail against the will of the most intolerant force imaginable—the law. The pure, simple love between couples is threatened by other people’s ignorance throughout D.W. Griffith’s film epic Intolerance (completed the year after The Birth of a Nation), which barrels forth like a freight train to condemn progress as mankind’s enemy. Swoops through extravagant pageants across lavishly produced sets give way to close-ups of human faces whose wide eyes register tenderly, regardless of period. The near-century-old film—still now, as it was then, archaic in message and revolutionary in form—is presented in a new Cohen Film Collection–released DCP restoration, scored by Carl Davis, that keeps the action of Griffith’s differently color-tinted eras bursting afresh. Their cross-cutting scenes are linked by an eternal return to the sunlit image of a seated young woman (Lillian Gish) with her hand on a baby’s cradle. Intolerance looks both backward and forward. The strong exploit the weak, it cries, and all governments throughout history are evil. Only individuals are capable of kindness—in them lies hope for the future.