For his next film, Griffith had a breathtakingly original concept. “Intolerance,” screening once Saturday in a stunning new digital 167-minute restoration at the Castro Theatre, was not a huge financial success for Griffith but it influenced an industry and put an iconic sign on the Hollywood hill.
To see the film today is to marvel at Hollywood’s grandeur before Hollywood existed, and grandeur was still unknown except to Griffith.
“Intolerance,” which early critics said “advanced the art of the motion picture one step further,” boldly told four stories of intolerance from different epochs.
The stories are connected in short scenes as the legendary Lillian Gish, nearly wrapped from head to foot, patiently rocks a symbolic cradle with a Walt Whitman-inspired title card: “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking.”
The film opens with the “modern story” of young love amid labor turmoil and the harshness of poverty in early America.
“Intolerance” is also central to the film’s crucifixion of Christ and St. Bartholomew’s massacre in France.
The most famous images of early cinema come from the Babylon sequences. Griffith spared no expense to construct Babylon, including the famous Babylon wall over a mile in length and 200 feet high. The Babylonian sets were so massive it was almost impossible for early cameras to film them.
The famous Babylonian court scene with hundreds of people moving about and sculptures of elephants with wings has provoked gasps and applause from audiences since 1916, and the scene is marvelously restored. Upon seeing the magnificence of Griffith’s Babylon, words such as “sweep” and “awe-inspiring” entered the lexicon of film criticism.
The battle scenes of “Intolerance” are not for the squeamish. During the siege of Babylon, the screen is filled with people being realistically crushed, speared and decapitated, though the headless body stands a bit too long. We see brief glimpses of frontal nudity in a bathing scene.
After the initial run of “Intolerance,” Griffith released the modern story and the Babylonian story as individual films. Reconstruction and previous restorations of “Intolerance” created new interest in the film over the years. This flawless restoration is the most exciting recent development in the film’s long life.
Starring Lillian Gish, Miriam Cooper, Elmer Clifton, Constance Talmadge
Directed by D.W. Griffith
Written by D.W. Griffith, Tod Browning
Running time 2 hours, 47 minutes
Note: “Intolerance” screens at noon Saturday at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F.; tickets are $11.