Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Cohen Film Collection: D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance Blu-ray Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson
intolerance coverD.W. Griffith changed the course of film history with his 1915 Civil War blockbuster The Birth of a Nation, and spurred on by its colossal success, he went even bigger on his next epic. The ambitious and still awe-inspiring Intolerance, in which the Father of Film masterfully links four centuries-apart stories of universal suffering, remains a signal achievement by any measure.  Stung by charges of glorifying racism in The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith decided to make his next film a plea for tolerance, acceptance and understanding. An epic like nothing that came before it or has been seen since, the monumental Intolerance remains as powerful today as it was almost a century ago. This major innovation in screen narrative tells four stories in parallel about social injustice and the effects of intolerance through the ages.  ”The Modern Story,” about a working man wrongly accused of a crime, was later issued as a separate film (The Mother and the Law, 1919). “The Judean Story” tells of Jesus’ conflicts with the Pharisees and Rome. “The Medieval Story” is about the effects of the massacre of 16th-century French Huguenots. “The Babylonian Story,” about the conquest of Babylon by Persia, also was issued later as a separate film (The Fall of Babylon, 1919).  Skillful cross-cutting (Griffith was the technique’s most renowned practitioner), and linking shots of a figure representing Eternal Motherhood rocking a cradle, bring all four stories to a tense climax. Cohen Media Group’s Cohen Film Collection proudly brings this canonical 1916 work to DVD and, for the first time ever on Blu-ray as well.
Intolerance 1916

Film (3 out of 5 stars) 

D.W. Griffith was not only a pioneer in the film industry who created many of the film-making techniques that are still used to, but he was also briefly a founding partner in United Artists and he was also the person whom Charlie Chaplin described as “The teacher of us all.”  As if that wasn’t praise enough, no less a genius than Orson Welles once said, “Orson Welles said “I have never really hated Hollywood except for its treatment of D. W. Griffith.  No town, no industry, no profession, no art form owes so much to a single man.”
Through his films like Birth of a Nation (originally known as The Clansman) which was the first blockbuster of all time and movies such as this one, Griffith revolutionized the way movies are made and watched.  He was also one of the first directors to feel the wrath of some of the audience who felt that The Birth of the Nation was backwards in its thinking when it came to slavery, The Ku Klux Klan, and life in south for African-Americans.  No filmmaker wants to be branded as a racist, so Griffith decided to respond back to his critics with another movie called Intolerance, which was intended through the four different but parallel story-lines to show how intolerance has been around for ages and just how long lasting it can be as the film’s timeline covers approximately 2,500 years.
Those four story-lines include one set in Babylonian times, one set during the Judean era, another during the French Renaissance times, and the last one was set during the modern era (which was 1914 at the time) in America.  The earliest example in the film is during the “Babylonian” story that takes place during 539 BC, which depicts how a conflict between the followers of rival gods (Bel-Marduk and Ishtar) resulted in a war between Prince Belshazzar of Babylon and Cyrus the Great of Persia.  During the “Judean” story which takes place in 27 AD and is the shortest of the four, Griffith shows how intolerance after the Wedding at Cana led to the Crucifixion of Jesus.
The other two stories, the “French” and “Modern” stories cover most of the running time with the “French” story-line covering how religious intolerance resulted in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and the “Modern” story show how the capitalist system can generate greed, crime, and class warfare when a mill owner decides to cut his employees’ wages by 10% to fund his sister’s charity whose mission is to uplift society.  That action isn’t viewed too kindly by the workers and they go on strike which ends in bloodshed and violence when the striking workers are beaten by the company’s guards.  We see characters left with little choice but to turn to crime, while the same “uplift society” charity that caused the whole strike take away the baby of another character when they decided that it would be best for the child.
All of the stories interweave and transition between them beautifully as Griffith uses similar figures to show how little has changed over the years and how intolerance can live on.  He was the first filmmaker to intercut so many story-lines into a cohesive whole as as the film continues, the rapidity of the transitions between the story-lines goes quicker as it builds to a climax.  One technique that he uses to break the eras up is the repeated use of a mother rocking a cradle which is supposed to show the progression of time.  Another interesting fact is that the characters in this movie are nameless because he wanted them to serve as recognizable symbols with generic names like “The Dear One” or “The Boy”, or they’re given a more romantic flourish like “The Musketeer of the Slums.”
For a film from 1916 this is a very sophisticated film that many feel is the best silent film of all time. Griffith was ahead of his time which is obvious when you watch this movie.  His editing ties different eras, ideas, and scenes together in a way that had never been done before.  His use of spectacle was also unique and it’s one of the reasons why I wanted to see this movie.  They don’t make movies like this any more which is a shame.  For this film, he used 3,000 extras and built some amazingly massive sets that really set this film apart.  Of course, it was massively expensive and it never found the same success as Birth of a Nation did, but it was actually his better and more ambitious film.  Tying together an entire movie towards one concept is pretty original and the only other movie that I can think of that tried something similar is The Tree of Life.  While I thought the movie ran a lot longer than was necessary, there’s no denying the impact that the film still has today.
Intolerance 1916

Video (4 out of 5 stars) 

This 1080p transfer (1.33:1) looks amazing considering that the film was released in 1916.  The transfer itself comes from the The Thames Silents Restoration which was done by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill in 1989, but The Cohen Group did further work on it and gave it a 2K scan just to give viewers the best possible version available.  For a film as old as this one, of course there’s still going to be some signs of age like scratches and missing frames and those do pop up during the film’s runtime but they are hardly noticeable.   The detail is fairly good and the various tints seen through the movie give scenes a distinct look and mood depending on whether it’s a purplish tint, a sepia one, or a dark blue one.  The restoration also seems to have focused solely on fixing the defects as grain is visible (especially during the tinted scenes).  While I haven’t seen the previous releases for this movie, I think it’s still safe to say that this has to be the best looking one to come out.

Audio (4 out of 5 stars) 

While there’s no dialogue to hear in Intolerance, we do have two options to hear composer Carl Davis’ score for the film, with the first one being a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix and the second being a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix. I’m familiar with Davis’ talent from the Buster Keaton sets from Kino and he does just as good a job here as expected.   Instead of weaving music from the time period into one cohesive score like he did for The Big Parade, this time Davis seems to simply just supply the emotion to the scenes and it sound great, especially if you listen to the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix.  Both sound good but I’d pick the 5.1 mix as the one of choice simply because it utilizes every channel well and I’d rather hear the score all around me.  This is another win for Davis who seems to have a well deserved monopoly on scoring these kind of silent films.
intolerance 7

Extras (3 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

This is a two disc set and the second disc is the one that has all of the extras. Although quantity wise there’s not much included but it makes up for that in quality.
  • The Mother and the Law (1080p; 1:39:32) – Instead of the three hour cut of the film in its totality, this is the re-edited 1919 version that stripped the “Modern” story-line from the film which was the most popular with audiences (and was originally the sole story-line when Griffith conceived the film).  It still runs over two hours long but it is interesting to see the story without the intercutting from the other time periods.
  • The Fall of Babylon - At a little over an hour long, this focuses on the “Judean” story-line set in Babylon.  If you’re like me and like seeing the cool sets and the thousands of extras that wouldn’t happen today, then this is one for you.
  • Three Hours That Shook the World: Observations on Intolerance - At almost twenty minutes long, this interview conducted in 2013 with film historian Kevin Brownlow covers a wide range of topics for the film.  He provides stories from the making of the film and anecdotes about the people who were involved in it.
  • New essays by Cineaste magazine editor Richard Porton and historian William M. Drew
  • 2013 Restoration Trailer
intolerance 6

Summary (3 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

Intolerance is an interesting film to watch as it’s very ambitious but sometimes overly so as it runs three hours long. While I enjoyed the spectacle of the film, I also found the run-time to be excessive and in need of being whittled down.  Obviously Griffith came to that conclusion himself as he edited the story-lines into two separate movies three years later.  One final bit of trivia that I found interesting is the fact that this film’s assistant directors included Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind), Allan Dwan(Sands of Iwo Jima), Sidney Franklin (The Good Earth) and Tod Browning (Dracula, Freaks) who would later go on to their own famed careers.   As far as this Blu-ray itself goes, the Cohen Film Collection has done a wonderful job with their restoration of the film as both the video and audio quality are very good.  The extras are also good and it was interesting to see the story-lines separated.  If you are a fan of this film, then you should definitely pick up this new restoration of Intolerance!
Order your copy today!
intolerance cover

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