Watching a DW Griffith film is like watching Shakespeare indite his first couplets. Griffith didn’t invent cinema any more than the Bard invented language, but his command of the medium determined the methods by which today’s directors still articulate themselves.
Larger than its ambition, and the literal white elephants in frame, is Intolerance’s hypocrisy. Griffith's notorious Birth of a Nation, made a year earlier, indelibly marred his legacy, proving even the grandest vision cannot surmount impoverished principles. This follow-up, essentially an epic apology, stratifies and shuffles four epochs. Audiences were unprepared for its complexity; it landed at the box office with an Icarian splat.
So why watch a hypocrite’s three-hour flop? Intolerance is undoubtedly cinematic paradigm, but more than this, it’s a window through which we can peer 100 years into the past. It celebrates film’s unique power to transport us to a different age, and this is one sentiment of Griffith’s on which we can all agree.
Birth of a Nation