Abel Gance’s magnum opus is a towering behemoth of silent cinema, a visual feast of enduring delights. The most common version seen today is the result of twenty years of restorative work by Kevin Brownlow, to whom silent film owes a great debt of gratitude. Napoleon offers the first great historical biopic, a silent tour de force, and as its subject, it uses the great Corsican/French leader, Napoleon Bonaparte. Abel Gance, a French director, first developed the idea for an epic about Napoleon Bonaparte after the successes of his other films: J’accuse! in 1919 and La Roue in 1922. He saw D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and decided to create a massive epic of his own. Gance’s original intent was to create a six-part biopic on Napoleon, with each part lasting 75 minutes, however his financial backer went bankrupt and he was forced to stop after the first film. One aspect of particular note with this film, is the extraordinary access he was granted to the true spaces where Napoleon dwelled. For example, he was actually permitted to use Napoleon’s rooms in the Fontainebleau Palace. Gance even wrote to the surviving descendants of Napoleon, prophesying a “resurrection” of the emperor in his film. His letters went unreturned.
Albert Dieudonné was given the role of Napoleon in the film after he showed up unannounced at the palace one night in full costume, reciting one of Napoleon’s speeches. This was enough to impress Gance. The film portrays a young Napoleon as a leader during a schoolyard snowball fight (a highly memorable scene in the film for me), and from there we travel through the French Revolution and Napoleon’s rise to power, as well as his own romantic inclinations, concluding with battle scenes during the Napoleonic Wars. At the close, Napoleon gazes out over the Alps envisioning future struggles as a French flag is raised.
Securing funding for Napoleon was an ongoing challenge. The filming style was also unorthodox. All manner of contraptions were used to shoot scenes – cameras were hung from ceilings and attached to staff members or strapped to bicycles and so on. Many of the scenes were shot on location in Corsica, where Napoleon was raised. At one point, when re-enacting the climactic battle scenes, Gance and several others were badly burned in an explosion, however they returned to work shortly thereafter covered in bandages, determined to complete the film. Once finished, the many feet of celluloid required months of editing, which ultimately caused permanent damage to Gance’s retina and also caused his assistant to suffer a nervous breakdown.
Upon release of the film, crowds were whipped up into a frenzy by singing La Marseillaise, as copies of the music were distributed in theaters. The film was immediately claimed by some to be a masterpiece, while others said it was far too long (at over 9 hours in length) with too many divergent subplots. Studios begin revising and severely editing the film down to a more palatable length. Additionally, in his later life, Gance continued to add to the film and revise it, causing further archival chaos – between the original negative, studio revisions, and Gance’s additions and changes following the advent of sound film. Thus, Kevin Brownlow stepped in to restore the film beginning in 1969, by rebuilding the film from a wide variety of fragments. He died in 1981, and lived just long enough to see a screening of the restored version in 1979 in Colorado. Even Francis Ford Coppola undertook an effort to screen the film with a score composed by his own father, Carmine Coppola.
While Intolerance is a remarkably grandiose achievement in the history of cinema, it is a dizzyingly long and complex film that runs the risk of rapidly losing its audience. The concept and scope of the film is incredible, yet the delivery is somewhat difficult for me to stomach. The four separate parallel, intertwined plots take place in distinct historical epochs and are challenging to keep up with. Without running the risk of too close a comparison, Intolerance is akin to a symphony with far too many notes. With that being said, this is a masterful achievement in the history of early cinema, even if it did financially ruin D.W. Griffith. In total, it cost about $2 million to make –an exorbitant amount of money for the time– and at least a third of this cost was used for the Babylonian sequences (the massive Babylonian Gate was demolished after the film but later, about a mile away, the large Hollywood shopping mall partially reconstructed the massive gate for its entrance. It is located at Hollywood and & Highland Complex). Nevertheless, Intolerance was a huge commercial flop, in part, because of the huge cost to hire a full orchestra to accompany the film’s release. The flop ultimately sunk the Triangle Film Corporation, though Intolerance was curiously a minor hit in the Soviet Union.
Originally entitled “Motherhood and the Law,” Intolerance is sometimes viewed as Griffith’s response to the public outcry against The Birth of a Nation which was released the prior year, even though the part of Intolerance (the modern parts) were developed before the commercial successes of The Birth of a Nation. Inspiration for the film came to Griffith after watching Cabiria (1914), the great Italian epic. Subtitles for Intolerance have included: “A Sun-Play of the Ages” and “Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages.”
The film weaves together four separate but parallel plot-lines each exposing the persistence of “hatred and intolerance throughout the ages” which have “battled against love and charity.” Interwoven between each is a scene of a mother (the character of “Eternal Motherhood” played by Lillian Gish) rocking a small cradle alongside the phrase: “out of the cradle endlessly rocking.” There are over 50 different transitions between the different narratives throughout the film and each historical epoch is tinted with a different color.
Intolerance stars: Lillian Gish (Eternal Motherhood), and Mae Marsh (The Dear One) who both previously starred in Griffith’s TheBirth of a Nation (1915). At this time, epic films were predominantly emerging from France and Italy rather than the United States, so this was quite a risky endeavor for Griffith. Previously, Griffith had attempted to produce an epic, Judith of Bethulia(1913), but it was greatly overshadowed by its Italian counterpart Cabiria (1914).
The first story in Intolerance is the Modern Story, taking place circa 1914. It follows three women, later called “Uplifters” who are hoping to sponsor a social reform movement, and they look to the wealthy Marie T. Jenkins for money. Miss Jenkins, the unmarried sister of an industrial “overlord,” is hosting a ball but is distraught due to all the young men who pursue younger and prettier women while she gets older. Meanwhile a young girl (Mae Marsh), also called “the little Dear One,” keeps house while her father works for $2.75 per day at the Jenkins mill. Separately “The Boy” goes to work at the same mill with his father. The section concludes with the Uplifter reformers approaching Miss Jenkins for money. The Jenkins Factory was intended to resemble John D. Rockefeller, and the massacre at the outset was intended to mirror the Ludlow Massacre (1914).
The second story is the Judean Story, A.D. 27. Here, we are brought to ancient Jerusalem “near the Jaffa gate.” In a crowded street, a hypocritical Pharisee praises himself loudly saying, “Oh Lord, I thank thee that I am better than other men. Amen.”
The third story is the French Story, circa 1572 during the reign of Catherine de Medici and Charles IX chronicling the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of the French Protestants. Charles IX receives his younger brother at his lavish court, Monsieur La France, Duc D’Anjou. The King arrogantly eats sweets, while Catherine maintains the true power of the monarchy, and Monsiuer La France is heir to the throne even though he is effeminate, preferring to play with toys and pets. Catherine, a fierce Catholic, is opposed to the Huguenot party (French Protestants) led by Admiral Coligny (Joseph Henabery) who is favored by the King which only increases Catherine’s ire. Next, we see a large celebration of the marriage of Marguerite of Valois, the King’s sister, and Henry of Navarre a royal Huguenot. Two other Huguenot lovers are introduced, “Brown Eyes” and “Prosper Latour.”
We then return to the Modern Story, where Miss Jenkins has aligned herself with the morally self-righteous modern Pharisees, or the Uplifter reformers and her brother gives her a check for the cause. Mr. Jenkins goes to visit the dance that his factory workers are attending and notices that its ten o’clock and that the workers should be in bed for work the following morning.
Finally, we are introduced to the Babylonian Story, which details the fall of Babylon to the Persians. Amid massive crowds gathered outside the walls of Imgur Bel, the great gate of Babylon, we meet a “Mountain Girl,” and a “Rhapsode” who is a poet of the high priest of Bel. High above, the priest of Bel-Marduk jealously watches the entrance of Ishtar, a rival god, into the city. Below, the Rhapsode makes advances on the Mountain Girl who scorns him. The Prince Belshazzar is called an “apostle of tolerance and religious freedom” (the replica of the wall of Babylon was created 300 feet high with the capacity to right a chariot over). And the Mountain Girl’s brother drags her to court where the Code of Hammurabi says she must be sent to the marriage market to find a good husband.
We return to the Modern Story wherein the Jenkins mill is failing because of all the demands for increasing demands for money from the charity. Mr. Jenkins orders a 10% pay cut and the workers strike. The militia is called in and opens fire on the strikers and the “loom of Fate weaves death for the Boy’s father.” This causes many to leave the town for the city and The Boy turns to a life of petty theft to get by and a girl called “The Friendless One” turns to the “Musketeer of the Slums” –a gang leader.
Back to the Babylon Story, the Mountain Girl is not popular at the marriage market and the procession with the prince comes through. He gives her a royal seal stating that she can either marry or not marry as she pleases to do. Later, she is arrested for assaulting the Priest of Bel after he spoke ill of Melshazzar. She pleads her case before Belshazzar and he grants the Mountain Girl her freedom.
In the Modern Story, the Dear One watches women outside and longs to act like them, the Friendless One has become the mistress of the “Musketeer of the Streets”, and the Boy is a thief for the Musketeer. Later, he spots the Dear One practicing walking like the other ladies and kisses her but her father comes to the rescue. Her father dies shortly thereafter. In the Judean story, at the wedding, Jesus performs the miracle of turning water into wine. In the French Story, Brown Eyes and Prosper continue their love, unaware of the danger around them.
In the Modern Story, the Reformers are directly compared with the Pharisees of the Judean Story. They have become the most powerful group under the Mary T. Jenkins Fund. The Boy and the Dear One get married and the Boy quits his life of thievery but is framed as the gangsters beat him up and frame him with a gun and wallet. He is then arrested and imprisoned.
In the Babylonian Story the High Priest of Bel decides to betray Belshazzar and side with the invading Persian, Cyrus, to regain his political power.
In the Modern Story, the Uplifters pass new ordinances regarding unfit mothers of children. They check in on the Dear One who is sick with a cold and is using whisky as a home remedy. They are shocked to find she has a criminal husband and is using whisky. They confiscate her baby. She goes to visit the Foundation hoping that negligent mothers who are hired are not there.
In the French Story, out in the streets Huguenots are riding horses and Catherine convinces her compatriots that they must fight back against the Protestants. “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth…”
In the Babylonian story, Cyrus invades and The Mountain Girl’s brother suits with armor. Refusing to be left behind, she suits up to fight as well. The battle scenes are immense in their scale with towers and flaming arrows. The battle turns ugly as the Babylonians knock down Persian towers and soldiers cut off the heads of one another, but ultimately Babylon wins the day and they celebrate.
End of Act I. The script reads:
A Sun-play of the Ages INTOLERANCE A drama of Comparisons
The events portrayed of Babylon are according to “recently excavated cylindars of Nibonious and Cyrus” which portray the betrayal of the Priests of Bel, one of the greatest in history and the loss of the cuneiform language.
In the Modern Story, the Musketeer vows to recover the baby for the Dear One.
Back to the Babylon Story, and the most famous scene of the film, the camera slowly moves into the lavish streets of Babylon as hundreds of people are dancing and moving in celebration. Soldiers and citizens celebrate and feast. The High Priest looks down at the city he will betray.
The scenes begin transitioning rapidly now between one another.
In the Babylonian Story, the Mountain girl chases the priests as they defect to the Persians while the unsuspecting Babylonians celebrate. The priests leave the gate open and the Persians pour into the city while the Mountain Girl tries to warn King Belshazzar. It is too late and the king tries to defend the city with 12 guards but is eventually forced to kill himself with his queen and her entourage. The Mountain girl is then shot with an arrow and dies as 2 doves come on screen.
In the Judean Story, Christ is led to cross and is crucified (Howard Gaye, who played Jesus, was involved in a sex scandal with a 14 year old girl around the time of the film’s release and was sent back to England uncredited in the film).
In the French Story, Queen Catherine spearheads the massacre of the Protestants on St. Bartholomew’s Day. Brown Eyes is killed. Her killer is then shot to death in the doorway and bodies are strewn throughout Paris.
In the ModernStory, the Dear One’s lover is led to the gallows after being falsely accused of murder. The Dear One reaches the governor on a train to receive a pardon with the help, finally, of one of the Uplifters. The Boy is rescued just in time and they kiss and embrace as all the people move offscreen it is the only happy ending of the four stories.
The screen reads: “when cannon and prison bars wrought in the fires of intolerance -” will no longer prevail. Storm clouds move above a modern battlefield scene, where guns are fired, lines of battle between soldiers are enjoined, and flashes of lightning spark. Hand-to-hand fighting between two men is centered in an iris and mortar fire blasts from giant guns. A military tank moves behind the battle lines. Prisoners in striped uniforms in a long corridor shake their fists up toward a prison wall. In the cloudy sky above the modern-day battlefield, white robed, pacifistic, angelic figurines appear, as one of the hand-to-hand combatants holds his rifle in mid-air before bayoneting his fallen opponent. “And perfect love shall bring peace forevermore.” All the soldiers on the battlefield look up and drop their rifles.
“Instead of prison walls — Bloom flowery fields.” Brilliant light descends from above toward the exterior of a prison. The prisoners who are gesturing toward the wall suddenly move through it (again, a superimposed trick photography) – the prison walls disappear. The exterior of the prison dissolves into an open country scene with a flowering field in the foreground, and mountains in the background. The field is filled with black workers. The soldiers on the battlefield extend their arms to the sky as clouds (with the angelic figurines) descend toward them. In a May Day celebration, people happily dance on a grassy field, and two children sit on an unused cannon which has sprouted weeds and flowers. Two other children, a little boy and girl, are in the foreground playing happily together – he puts flowers in her hair, she blows him a kiss, and they both hug each other. From the battlefield, the soldiers look up and cheer toward the angelic figurines. A brilliant white cross appears over the scene. There is a final medium-close shot of the woman rocking the cradle.
Because of its extreme unpopularity the film was cut in two and released separately as “The Fall of Babylon” and “The Mother and the Law.” However, these two separate films still never garnered much popularity and to his dying day, Griffith would still be paying his debts on this film.