Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Intolerance (1916)

     I’m back! By the time you read this, I will have been in the United States for over a week, and it is very nice to be back home. I am kind of sad that I had to leave so soon, though, because I met a lot of really great people during my time in Ecuador and Peru and was able to do a lot of ministry with them. But now that I’m home, I will be able to do a lot of video editing for the missions organization I was with, and I’ll be able to spend the rest of my summer with friends and family in the States, which I’m very excited for.

     This also means that now, I can continue talking about movies on “Reel Christianity”. And before I go into today’s film, I have to let you know that one of my goals this summer, now that I’m back, is to finish watching all the movies on the American Film Institute’s lists of the top 100 greatest American films—both the original list from 1998 and the updated one from 2007. This may sound silly, but heck, I’m at 99 on both lists. The last movie I have to see is “A Clockwork Orange”, which I saved for last on purpose (because it’s supposed to be the creepiest of all the films on the list). On these lists, though, are several (but not many) silent films. You’ve got Chaplin’s “City Lights”, Buster Keaton’s “The General”, F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise” (my favorite silent movie ever), and D.W. Griffith’s epics “The Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance”.

     I got to see “Intolerance” back in April for the first time (it’s free on YouTube, if you ever want to see it), and I can definitely say I was blown away. “Intolerance” was made nearly one hundred years ago; but even back in 1916, filmmaking pioneer Griffith was discovering more and more new techniques to create his work. Just watch “Intolerance”—or “Birth of a Nation”, for that matter—and you can see the first examples in film history of gigantic sets, a moving camera, wide shots, and cross-cutting between different stories. The crosscutting technique can be seen in a lot of recent movies like “Babel” or “Crash” (I guess… I haven’t seen either one), so I thought this was just a newer technique to use. But nope! Griffith was doing it in 1916. Genius.

     But even beyond the technique, “Intolerance” was able to impact me spiritually as well. The film does go back and forth between four different stories from four different eras in history. But all four stories deal with the idea of prejudice or discrimination… or, well, intolerance. (This was fascinating to me, considering “Birth of a Nation” was made the year before this was, in which the KKK were viewed as heroes in the South.) The main story, in my opinion, is the present-day (well, 1916 present-day) story of a young woman whose husband is accused of a crime he did not commit, and the main reason for it is because he is a poor working-class man. He is sentenced to be executed, but his wife saves his life at the last minute. (How? Watch the movie.)

     Another story takes place in ancient Babylon. The king (don’t quote me, but I’m pretty sure it’s Belshazzar) gets himself in a conflict with his people because of religious issues. (This, by the way, is the story with the most beautiful—and most recognized—sets.) Eventually, a war basically breaks out there, and it actually gets pretty violent. Another story (which I personally paid less attention to than the other three, for some reason) takes place in 16th-century France, which tells the story of the events leading up to the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre between the Protestants and the Huguenots. And by these stories, you may get the impression that a lot of this intolerance was caused by religion.

     Well, ladies and gentlemen, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. For the fourth story, the shortest of them all, takes place in Judea in the first century. The first time we are introduced to this story is when we see two men in cloaks walking down a market street. These are Pharisees, and one of them stands in the middle of the street and cries: “Oh Lord, I thank Thee that I am better than other men.” The Judeans look at him with disgust. (Sounds familiar, right? See Luke 18:9-14.)

     Later on, we see a man countering the attitude of the Pharisees, and guess who it is? That’s right, Jesus! D.W. Griffith, in 1916, re-creates John 8:1-11, where Jesus Christ tells the Pharisees, after they have brought a woman to him caught in adultery: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (8:7b) And when they all leave, Jesus tells the woman that He does not condemn her. (And maybe it’s just me, but how fascinating is it to see a movie from nearly one hundred years ago that re-enacts stories from the Gospels? Crazy, right?)

     But that’s not all. Later, “Intolerance” not only re-enacts Jesus carrying His cross to Calvary, but it ends with what I call a spectacular final sequence. There is a short scene of what looks like some kind of war, with men charging at each other with bayonets and killing each other. But all of a sudden, the war stops as—get ready—angels appear in the sky. The men with bayonets all stop and look up. Titles appear on the screen that read:

     “When cannon and prison bars wrought in the fires of intolerance—and perfect love shall bring peace forevermore. Instead of prison walls—bloom flowery fields.”

     And in another scene, we see prisoners, all dressed in the traditional striped uniforms, begging for food. All of a sudden, light appears in the prison, and the men run out. We see the prison from the outside, and it suddenly cross-dissolves into a wide, empty field. (You have to see this movie to really understand what I’m talking about. Seriously, please look it up.)

     So yeah, I was really happy that a movie from 1916—a movie, no less, that’s regarded as one of the first film masterpieces of all time—was willing to re-create historical, and even Biblical, accounts to convey this message of love against intolerance. This isn’t the first movie I’ve talked about on “Reel Christianity” that deals with the idea of prejudice, and so you can find other Scripture that talks about that. But I still think that, in terms of dealing with intolerance, we really do need to follow the example of Jesus in John 8. If the One without sin is not willing to condemn someone to death for sin, we should not be either. My prayer for you this week is that if you find yourself in that kind of situation, you would be willing to turn the other cheek and love your neighbor as yourself.


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