One landmark film for students of the silent film era, along with white supremacists or Nazis, was The Birth of a Nation. This was director D.W Griffith’s beautifully-made and offensively racist 1915 Civil War epic, based on the racist 1905 rant The Clansman by Thoma Dixon. In the film black people are demeaned as lazy, dishonest and dangerous drunks, with the main black characters played by white actors with burnt cork on their faces and the Ku Klux Klan riding heroically to the rescue of the down-trodden Southern whites, including one played by silent era star Lillian Gish. This arguably made Griffith’s first major success a good example of how not to think for today’s audiences.
Griffith’s next and best film, Intolerance (Love’s struggle throughout the ages) was released the following year (1916) and viewed as a riposte to those who had accused him of racism. This analysed the damaging effects of intolerance in four different historical periods, with the stories interwoven – the fall of Babylon in 539BC, the crucifixion of Christ in Judea, the St Bartholemews Day Massacre in France in 1572 and the social problems of early 20th century in America, though for the last segment the toxic effect of the intolerance of white supremacists is not covered. Lillian Gish is billed as one of the stars but has an unchallenging role rocking a cradle as the link between the stories.
The scale and sweep of the film is spectacular, particularly in the Babylonian story where the 300 ft high sets realistically represent the walled city, the battle scenes are long and violent and full use is made of the 3,000 extras Griffiths hired. The characterisations are strong too, with a beguiling performance by the 18 year-old Constance Talmadge as the feisty, tomboyish and funny Mountain Girl being especially memorable. Her performance wasn’t all acting either as she really was an active outdoor type with a keen sense of subtle humour who did her own stunts. Griffith was impressed enough with her to make her section as a new separate film, The Fall of Babylon, in 1919, with a re-filmed happier ending for her. Around 1929 was the advent of talkies and after appearances in more than 80 silent films, of which only a handful survive, Talmadge, along with her two actress sisters, retired. She died 44 years later in 1973, aged 75, of pneumonia.
Intolerance (Love’s struggle through the ages) has been released by Eureka Entertainment in a 2-disc Blu-ray edition as part of their award-winning The Masters of Cinema series. Special features include two feature-length films by Griffiths that act as companion pieces to Intolerance and take their material from two of the four sections- The Fall of Babylon (see above) and The Mother and the Law. There is also a 2013 documentary Three Hours That Shook the World: Observations on ‘Intolerance’ and a 53- page booklet.