In this film, David Wark Griffith tells four stories in parallel, three from history, and one fictional modern one. The historical episodes are the fall of ancient Babylon, the crucifixion of Christ, and the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of the Huguenots. The modern story tracks a young woman and man that find each other but seem to be fated to lose everything, even the baby, due to various injustices of the society they live in, including a female-dominated reform society.
Providing the recurring segue between each story-change is a shot of a woman rocking a cradle, with three other women looking on vacantly, sort of a variation of the Nordic norns I suppose; they seem to suggest an inevitability to the bad things that keep happening: as if to say “here we go again.”
The movie is an extended sermon against intolerance, which is set over against love. In three of the stories there is (of course) a woman at the “heart” of the love aspect (Christ’s story being the exception).
The same three include a desperate race against time to try to rescue the situation. This contrivance not only adds interesting suspense, but gives another over-arching thematic coupling to stories that span 2,500 years.
There are two levels at which to analyze the movie: technical and philosophical. At the technical level, I gladly defer to the experts (who generally rave about it), only adding that though it is (of course) a silent, it is so full of action and amazing set designs that it is not hard to watch. It is a bit hard to listen to at times: the theatre-organ soundtrack included is often exactly appropriate, but sometimes corny, and sometimes just irritating on account of its ceaselessness.
It is appropriate to examine the message of this movie at length, given its unremitting tendentious character; for example, even the word “imprison” is replaced with the neologism “intolerate”.
1. The sack of Babylon is presented as culpable treason of the priests of Bel, envious of the attention Belshazzar lavishes on Ishtar. In presenting it this way, the story completely ignores the just judgment of God upon idolatry of whatever form, as explained in the book of Daniel.
2. The story of Christ distorts the situation by presenting the root problem as that of intolerance — as if Christ would have been satisfied if men had adopted an attitude of cold toleration toward the kingdom of God! The reality is quite different. Men are inflamed into a rage in the presence of Him who was meek and gentle, in that day and since, for reasons the pondering of which are the first step to understanding the gospel. It is hatred of God and love of self; not some falling short of “tolerance.”
3. What was it about the Huguenots that filled the Parisian papists with thoughts of cold-blooded slaughter? Their plain life-styles? diligent work ethic? the singing of psalms? their chastity?
To answer “intolerance” simply misses the point completely. Or rather, it might be part of the truth, but it leaves out the bigger part, namely: everything else about you needs to change as well. Indeed, everything else would have to change to make “tolerance” even possible. The problem with popish societies is not in the first place their intolerance, but rather their hatred of the gospel that makes them prone to loathe and despise those that embrace it. It is a totality problem, not a matter of tweaking one little part.
To apply this insight back into the Babylonian society, we need to make the adjustment that both parties to that conflict were pagan counterfeiters of the truth, so there will be error all around. However, making that allowance, we can see that the priests of Bel were, in their counterfeit-to-the-truth kind of way, right to feel “jealousy” toward the usurping Ishtar. The living and true God is also jealous of imposters.
Why should they have been tolerant toward Ishtar and her worshippers?
The only answer Griffith can provide is future-consequential: a great language and civilization was lost. But the priests did not know that would be the consequence; and if they had, why should they have seen that as trumping their more fundamental concern?
4. The modern story is a bit confused as to whether the underlying problem causing the woes of the young couple are due to structural problems of the society such as unemployment, or the busy-body meddling of the women’s reform society. Obviously, Griffith wants to say “both,” but how do you fix the former without becoming a reformer? His answer has to be something like, “be a tolerant reformer” but this has no content to it. Why not then be tolerant of the unjust social structures, for example? Bare toleration doesn’t provide any traction that could lead to real reform.
Historically, Protestant nations have been the most tolerant in the history of humanity, but not because Tolerance was an article of faith. And ironically, the movie is emblematic of the end of Protestant Christianity as the dominant force in America, representing as it does a reinterpretation of Christianity along modernist lines.
It is preachy, and it is a very bad sermon. It is incoherent. But it is amazing technically and worth a viewing for both that and for an insight into its times.