The huge set for the city of Babylon in D.W. Griffith's masterpiece Intolerance
The huge set for the city of Babylon in D.W. Griffith's masterpiece Intolerance
The huge set for the city of Babylon in D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece Intolerance

I picture the initial pitch meeting for D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance” going something like this:

Griffith: So, I want to make to these four movies.

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Harry Aitken (head of the Triangle Film Corporation and, we assume, totally deaf): We just loved that last movie of yours.

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Griffith: One’s about ancient Babylon, which I’m going to rebuild from the ground up, one basically restages Bible stories, one is about a massacre in 16th-century France, and one is about some striking factory workers who turn to crime.

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Aitken: You understand, David, that we’re just crazy about your work-“The Birth of a Nation” made Reliance-Majestic and Louis Mayer an incredible amount of money, riots or no riots.

Griffith: I’ll foot the bill for the Babylon thing.

Aitken: I look forward to your next project.

Griffith: Okay, well, so I’ll just go make those four movies.

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Aitken: Good talk.

“Intolerance” is a gigantic monument to Griffith’s two most indelible characteristics, namely his vast, untrammeled ambition and his crazed devotion to Gilded Age notions of history and politics. It is a gorgeous, splendid, borderline nonsensical exploration of a complex theme by someone who wouldn’t know a complex theme if it ran up and kicked him in the shins, across three hours, four historical periods and $2.5 million in 1916 bucks, which are about twenty times more valuable than 2013 bucks. At one point Griffith has two car chases, a riot, an orgy and the Crucifixion going on simultaneously. It is violent, melodramatic, moving and contains a surprising amount of nudity for a movie made during the First World War. In contemporary parlance, it kicks ass.

Lillian Gish as Eternal Motherhood

A revival of “Intolerance” showcasing a beautifully restored print is going on at the Film Forum in New York City until the 8th of August and I encourage you to see it, if for no other reason than that you should absolutely set aside an afternoon to gawk at the sets, and the surprisingly convincing beheadings, and that moment when a giant, flamethrowing tank emerges from the gates of Babylon to ward off King Cyrus of Persia. It’s a gorgeous spectacle, and it’s accompanied by a beautiful Carl Davis score that incorporates Tin Pan Alley songs into the “modern-day” sequence and “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” into the scenes of anti-Huguenot persecution. There’s not really any point to watching it on DVD; it would be like looking at a postage stamp of a Seurat painting. Like most ass-kicking movies-think “Jurassic Park,” or “The Lord of the Rings,” or “Avatar”-its accomplishments are primarily technical, and it should be appreciated both for Griffith’s efforts to move the medium forward and for what it cost him to make.

If you know Griffith’s name, it’s probably because his most famous movie, “The Birth of a Nation,” is basically a code-phrase for ignorant bigotry. It’s also necessarily one of the most influential films ever made, not for its insane racial politics, but for its masterly technique. Griffith was keenly aware that he’d made both an astonishing financial success-the film was so popular “they lost track of the money it made,” its star Lillian Gish said at one point-and a tremendous, unforgivable error with respect to posterity, which is what he cared most about.

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“We used to laugh about films in the early days,” Gish told film historian Kevin Brownlow. “We used to call them ‘flickers.’ Mr. Griffith said, ‘Don’t you ever let me hear you use that word again. The film and its power are predicted in the Bible. There’s to be a universal language making all men understand each other. We are taking the first baby steps in a power that could bring about the millennium. Remember that when you stand in front of the camera.'”

Royals argue before the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Intolerance

The NAACP protested “Nation” and attempted to get screenings of the movie shut down, and not without excellent reasons even more material than the film’s repellent depiction of black people as ignorant sex fiends. Besides immediate unrest-rioting, picketing, and worse-critic Louis Menand points to the movie as a primary reason for the popularity of French racial theorist Arthur Gobineau’s essay “The Inequality of the Human Races,” which got trendy enough in the wake of the movie’s release to make an English translation profitable (its theory of the Aryan Master Race would go on to greater popularity in Germany). And the film directly inspired William Joseph Simmons, a Georgia doctor, to revive the Ku Klux Klan based on its depiction of the group’s purported heroism on behalf of white townsfolk beset by simian virtue-stealers. Simmons saw the movie while convalescing after being hit by a car and was moved to action by it; a few days after the lynching of Leo Frank, he led several members of the lynch mob in a ceremonial reading from the Bible and a recreation of the grandest symbolic gesture in “The Birth of a Nation”-one that has been associated with the KKK ever since. At the top of Stone Mountain, he burned a gigantic cross.

It’s important to make these points because one wants to stop well short of calling Griffith unjustly vilified or misunderstood. “The Birth of a Nation” was harmful precisely because people understood it perfectly; it took the junky misappropriations of recent history used to justify a a culture of white grievance and, with tremendous skill and talent, fused them into a powerful and popular narrative spectacle. Since that culture remains alive and well today, it’s still very easy to find people who love all the wrong things about his films. That an artist who has done such a thing should be outcast and vilified can be taken pretty reasonably as proof that the world is working correctly, for once.

Looked at another way, though-and this was a perspective expressed by defenders from Gish to Charlie Chaplin to Orson Welles-it seems very cowardly indeed to scapegoat one man for expressing a view shared by so many of his contemporaries that “The Birth of a Nation” became easily the most popular film up to that point in history. Everyone from the chief justice of the Supreme Court-a former Klansman himself-to Woodrow Wilson saw the movie and praised it to the skies. Wilson called it “history written with lightning” and said that his “only regret is that it is all so terribly true,” which says something horrible and frightening about the influence of conventional wisdom on everyone, not just Griffith. Far easier to have one racist who mysteriously inflamed the passions of the weak-willed than an epidemic of racism.

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It also says something about the quality of the film itself. Too often evil and ignorance are lazily conflated in order to make evil less frightening; Griffith’s marvelous, hideous film is a standing rebuke to that comforting fallacy, and that is why it is so disturbing to watch.

But conventional, lightning-free history, thankfully, was on the side of neither Wilson nor Simmons, and Griffith seemed to understand that as angry critical responses poured in. To respond effectively to his critics, Griffith reasoned, he would need to outdo himself-a bigger movie, a grander theme, a climax no one would forget.

David Wark Griffith

There is a very strange branch of Protestant theology called premillennial dispensationalism that posits an essentially literal view of Revelation, the final book of the Christian bible. That, by the way, is the “Millennium” to which Gish recalls Griffith referring above-the thousand years during which Christians will be caught up in the rapture and Jesus will directly rule the earth. There are a lot of boxes dispensationalists need to tick before the Millennium can arrive, including the destruction of the Dome of the Rock (which sits on the traditional location of Solomon’s temple, a structure that must be rebuilt), the formation of a one-world government, and, of course, the establishment of a universal language, which Griffith was trying to do all by himself in the medium of film. Then, he and many of his contemporaries believed, the dead would rise, the angels would descend from heaven, and Jesus himself would interrupt the battle of Armageddon as it is being waged on the plains of Megiddo.

If you doubt this characterization of Griffith’s beliefs, or if you’d like to see this stirring scene played out before you on the silver screen, may I recommend to you the great movie “Intolerance,” now playing through Thursday at the Film Forum? It is the epilogue to the movie, staged in as grand a fashion as Griffith could manage, and in it, the director substitutes World War I for Armageddon and calls on God himself to stop the carnage tearing France asunder. Even the most nonsensical parts of the movie are weirdly prophetic: that fire-spurting Babylonian tank (appropriated from drawings by Leonardo Da Vinci) first appeared in movie theaters just ten days before English forces rolled a tank into battle for the first time on the blood-drenched fields of the Somme.

Movies, Griffith had seen firsthand, had immense power. If he could accidentally ignite racial violence across the country with one film, perhaps he could plead for the cessation of even greater violence with his next. At first, “Intolerance” was planned to follow only the factory workers’ storyline-easily the most fully-realized narrative of the four interwoven plotlines-but Griffith expanded it hugely to include parallel tracks throughout history, all ostensibly (but not actually) having to do with censorship. The director had invented cross-cutting for ‘The Birth of a Nation;” with that technique (and “Intolerance” is essentially all cross-cutting, between settings and between parallel plots), he could show the damage wrought by intolerance throughout history. Calls for censorship of his film, he told his audience, were exactly the sort of thing that led to violence and bloodshed; here, he had a gigantic film filled with all the stuff he assumed he could count on the prudes to object to: ancient Babylon, the sexy-parts version; graphic scenes of warfare; jabs at public morality movements. Here was a guy who was spoiling for another, even bigger fight, with no less that God himself in his corner.

It is perhaps a foregone conclusion that Griffith was ill-suited to this kind of politicking. If “The Birth of a Nation” incontrovertibly demonstrates anything about the director, it’s that you can be a brilliant dramatist and remain very stupid about politics, but no one who cares even a little bit about the movies can walk out of “Intolerance” without at least a grudging respect for its sheer scope. Welles, who adored Griffith, admitted in an introduction to “Intolerance” that much of the movie’s tone was old-fashioned when it first appeared in theaters, but “you’re going to see an awful lot that would be new tomorrow because of the genius of the man,” he added, almost scoldingly. “It’s an immensely complicated and ambitious project to put all those stories together and make them work, and maybe they don’t work, but that failure is one of the great successes of the cinema.”

“Intolerance” flopped in direct proportion to that ambition; the film was such a financial disaster that Griffith spent the rest of his career paying off the debts incurred during production, and Harry Aitken and his brother Roy had to sell Triangle’s assets to Adolph Zukor. Plenty of people lose money; D.W. Griffith, who never did anything small, lost enough money to bankrupt the studio. He didn’t end the war, but he did end several careers, including, by inches, his own. “I met D. W. Griffith only once, in the last days of the last year of the 1930s, Hollywood’s golden age, but for the greatest of all directors it had been a sad and empty decade,” Welles told Peter Bogdanovich. “The motion picture which he had virtually invented had become the product-the exclusive product-of America’s fourth-largest industry, and on the assembly lines of the mammoth movie factories there was no place for Griffith.”

With those words, Welles articulated in artistic terms the feeling of pity and anger engendered by his personal understanding of the director’s own plight, late in life. He also hit on the feeling that Griffith himself was able to summon so expertly with his melodramas. For Welles, film was in a perpetual state of decay; for Griffith, public morals was in that same state. In any medium, reigning auteurs are on some level conservative, because they have embraced the past, whether it’s Godard and Truffaut worshipping Hitchcock or Hitchcock and Welles admiring Griffith: they are always people with respect for their forebears who dare to bring an old-fashioned work ethic and ambition to the lazy, mercenary present, whenever that may be.

Sometimes they bring other things from the past, too.