One of the apocryphal stories cinephiles tell each other—on par with the audience at the Grand Café in Paris fleeing the sight of the Lumières’ oncoming train, in terms of both illustrative power and historical dubiousness—is about a retort director D.W. Griffith once gave to American Mutoscope & Biograph Co. executive Henry Marvin. A cut in Griffith’s After Many Years [1908], between a man stranded on a desert island and his wife waiting for him at home, would confuse audiences, Marvin insisted. Depending on which version of the encounter you read, Griffith’s response was, “Dickens writes that way. Why can’t we make movies that way?” 

Thus was born, the story goes, that facet of cinematic language we refer to as cross-cutting. The myth is attractive for any number of reasons, not the least of which is its likening of film to literature. But whether or not the story is strictly factual, masterful Griffith shorts like A Corner in Wheat [1909] and The Lonedale Operator [1911], and his notorious [because it’s a disgusting, racist, genocide-endorsing film that glorifies the Ku Klux Klan] first feature, The Birth of a Nation [1915] all use the technique to create suspense and draw thematic parallels. [Note: In the 1920s, thanks in part to Birth, KKK membership was so mainstream for white middle America that the organization had a photo spread in the University of Illinois yearbook.]

It was in his follow-up to The Birth of a Nation, 1916’s Intolerance, that Griffith would take the logic of the cross-cut to its extreme, cutting between four different historical epochs. Each story is meant to illustrate, as the film puts it in an early intertitle, “how hatred and intolerance, through all the ages, have battled against love and charity.” [There is notably little reflection on how the virulent racism of Birth would fit into this recurring, timeless schema of love and hate.]

Intolerance’s “modern story” is an urban melodrama: a reformed criminal and his wife are hypocritically persecuted by a social uplift group. Meanwhile, in the Renaissance France of the second story, the Protestant Huguenots are massacred at the hands of Catholics. For the third story, Griffith resurrects [pun intended] the popular early-film genre of the passion play. Finally, undoubtedly the most memorable portion of the film is set in Ancient Babylon, where two religious sects come into conflict amid monumental production design.

Griffith and his screenwriters initially give us a kind of symbolic narrative anchor—the supposedly eternal image of a mother rocking a cradle—to bridge the cuts between epochs, but as each story heads toward its climax the cuts between them become more frequent, and this narrator position fades out of the film. The filmmakers make the gambit that audiences will not only comprehend the brash collision of stories, but that they’ll be able to get invested in characters and situations who constantly dis- and re-appear.

As a viewer today, and particularly in the wake of 90s/00s films obsessed with interconnected stories, Intolerance’s structure is hardly as challenging as it may have been in 1916. What I’ve called the “anchor” feels superfluous because we are by now pretty fluent in the language Griffith at least helped to invent. 

Regardless, there remains much to appreciate about the film. In an era when cross-cutting was becoming purely about action and sensation, when films were consolidating around linear stories and recognizable stars, Intolerance challenged the limits of established film form, suggesting that cinema could do what Dickens does—and then some, offering the pathos and narrational complexity of A Tale of Two Cities along with the immediacy and vibrancy of the moving image.