D.W. Griffith's 1916 historical epic weaves four stories of intolerance that occur in the past and present: the fall of Babylon in ancient times, the crucifixion of Christ, St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in the 16th Century, and class struggle and injustice in the modern times. Running about 3 hours in most editions, this ambitious, pioneering American silent classic not only has plenty of big-scale set pieces -- a shootout during a labor strike, violent Babylonian battles, a car-train chase scene, etc. -- but it is also a groundbreaking artistic triumph in its bold intercutting of the 4 stories that serves to enhance each story and compliment one another. The film's final 30 minutes is a rapid intercutting of the 4 climaxes of the stories that is thrilling to watch. Not to mention, the film has possibly the most famous shot in all of silent cinema, an aerial view of the palace of Belshazzar. "Intolerance" is one of the earliest and also one of the best films ever made, by a director who is often called "The Father of Film".
The new region-free Blu-ray and DVD editions by Cohen Media present the best picture quality ever for this film on home video. The Blu-ray's 1080p picture is remarkably clean, stable, and free of flickers. Some footage still looks worse than others. But the good-looking scenes look quite stunning in terms of details and clarity. Originally restored by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill in 1989, the film was given a further restoration by Cohen Media, resulting in this new Blu-ray and DVD. The music accompaniment by Carl Davis is also, in my opinion, the best score ever used for the film. Davis' majestic orchestral music is a great fit for the epic scenes, and it does a great job highlighting a lot of the dramatic nuances in more personal moments as well.
There have been many revisions made to "Intolerance" over the years, some by director D.W. Griffith himself up until 1926, and some by unauthorized foreign distributors. Nowadays, many believe that the 1926 version represents Griffith's final cut. In 1990, restorer David Shepard created a version of the film based on this 1926 version, plus footage from older versions when necessary. This restored version was released on DVD by Image in 1999, and is currently the most complete version of the film in terms of the amount of footage available.
Unfortunately, the new Blu-ray/DVD by Cohen Media is less complete than the Image DVD.
The Cohen Media edition is largely identical to the 2002 Kino DVD edition in terms of the footage available. Even though the Kino DVD runs the longest at 197 minutes, it is actually less complete than the Image DVD. Its longer running time is mainly due to its slower, perhaps erroneous film speed. The Cohen Media disc seems to run at a correct speed, thus running shorter at only 168 minutes due to less footage.
Below is a list of some of the footage missing on the Kino and Cohen editions, but is found on the Image DVD:
(1) A closeup shot of the words Jesus wrote on the ground after he rescued the prostitute by saying "he who never sins may cast the first stone." The Kino & Cohen editions show a long shot of him writing something on the ground, but we don't see what exactly he wrote.
(2) A 2-minute scene where Belshazzar rescues the Mountain Girl from being killed by the High Priest of Bel. This scene is found on the Image DVD at 00:46:37.
(3) A long shot of the Babylon castle wall being attacked by Cyrus's towers (found on Image DVD: 1:35:50).
(4) A closer shot of Cyrus's army climbing up to the Babylon castle (Image: 1:37:23). This shot improves continuity of the shots before and after.
(5) An extra shot of Babylonians praying in front of the statue of Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess (Image: 1:37:50). This shot shows a larger group of prayers than the existing, similar shots found on Kino & Cohen editions.
(6) A scene of an old lady offering 3 turnips and a carrot to Ishtar (Image: 1:38:03). This scene is followed by grisly killings of Babylonian soldiers, showing the futility of the old woman's prayer.
(7) Another shot of Babylonians in front of Ishtar's statue (Image: 1:38:30). This shot is similar to No. (5) above.
(8) A closeup of a severed head of a dead soldier (Image: 1:40:30). This corresponds nicely with a later shot of a soldier getting decapitated.
(9) A closeup of The Mountain Girl looking terrified during the battle (Image: 1:42:26). This shot shows the horror of the battle is finally getting to the previously fearless woman.
(10) A shot of an exhausted woman worker collapsing and dying (Image: 1:43:03). The Image disc also has a title card identifying the "Woman aid worker". The Kino & Cohen editions are missing both the shot and the title card.
(11) A somewhat comical shot of a Babylonian soldier getting speared in his buttocks after he decapitated an enemy (Image: 1:44:12). Here, Griffith might have intended to "soften" the horror of the decapitation with a little comedy.
(12) The "justice and restoration" segment that shows a happy ending involving The Dear One's baby (Image: 2:53:41). Some believe Griffith's final intention was to NOT have the happy ending. My feeling is that I prefer to have a loose end tied up.
Note that most of my observations occur in the first Babylon battle. There may be a lot more missing shots that I missed.
All this missing footage may help explain why the Image DVD runs 178 minutes and the Cohen edition only 168 minutes.
Also, these missing shots are not just extraneous footage that can be discarded. They serve useful purposes in the storytelling. On the Image DVD, there is a "visual essay" by film historian Russell Merritt, who writes that a lot of thought has been put into the inclusion and exclusion of footage. Based on my viewing, the Image edition is indeed more satisfying in terms of content.
Unfortunately, the Image DVD, first released in 1999, has the worst picture quality of the 3 editions since it was sourced from 16-millimeter material. The picture is also quite severely cropped on the edges, to the point that the director's initials "DG" at the bottom of each title card are sometimes partially cut off.
The 2002 Kino DVD was made from a 35mm print and therefore looks much better as a result. The Cohen edition shows greater visual improvement still.
Despite the missing footage, both the Kino and Cohen editions have one crucial scene that is NOT on the Image disc. It occurs when the Friendless One is about to fire a gun at the Musketeer due to jealousy. The Kino and Cohen versions show that she suddenly has a flashback to the time she met The Boy, making her hesitant to fire the gun. We see her trembling hands and nervous expression, showing that she clearly struggles with the idea of committing a murder. This dramatic moment is NOT on the Image DVD, ironically, even though the Image disc is otherwise more complete. The Image edition simply shows her firing the gun mercilessly and without hesitation.
Incidentally, Cohen's version also has some footage that is not found on either Image or Kino disc. Early in the film, the Cohen disc shows one of the reformers saying (via a title card), "We must have laws that make people good!" This is followed by a couple of shots of the workers drinking and dancing. The Image and Kino discs don't have this title card nor the shots of the workers. During the film's epilogue segment, I notice a couple of shots not present in other editions as well.
In 2007, Danish Film Institute had its own restoration of "Intolerance", and that resulted in yet another DVD edition, released in Region-2 PAL format in 2010 by French publisher Diaphana. Even though this DVD has terrific picture quality (second only to Cohen's edition), this edition is the least complete of all the editions, and is even less complete than the Kino and Cohen discs. Unforgivably, it bungles up the editing during the climax of the modern story. But remarkably, it also has footage not present in other editions. I have seen the DVD, and noticed quite a few alternate takes, such as the scene where the Boy "sets his steps on the straight road", which shows him praying more sincerely than he does in other editions.
So, in short:
(1) The Image DVD from 1999, while having the worst picture quality, is the most complete of all versions in terms of the amount of footage available.
(2) The French DVD from 2010, while having terrific picture quality (2nd only to the Cohen Blu-ray), is the least complete of all versions in terms of the amount of footage available.
(3) The Kino DVD from 2002, while having the longest running time, is not as complete as the Image DVD, but not as INcomplete as the French DVD.
(4) The Cohen edition from 2013 has largely identical footage as the Kino DVD.
(5) Each edition has footage not found in other editions.
The Cohen Media edition comes with a second disc containing bonus features. There is a 19-minute interview with restorer Kevin Brownlow, who is too modest to point out that his 1989 restoration of the film was the basis of Cohen Media's edition. Brownlow touches on the significance of the film, the extraordinary making of an epic, and recalls from first-hand knowledge his meetings with those who worked on the film, such as film editor James Smith. The interview is also sprinkled with production photos and film clips as well.
Also included are two "spin-off" movies made by Griffith in 1919, shown for the first time ever on home video and presented in 1080p to boot. Both spin-off films are sourced from unrestored prints with print damages, flickers, and unsteady frames.
"The Mother and the Law" is a re-edited and expanded version of the modern story in "Intolerance". This untinted 100-minute film looks like upconverted HD at times. By my estimate, it has almost half hour of extra footage compared to the version in "Intolerance", and that is not all good news. Some of the extra stuff feels like filler material. We see a scene of The Dear One visiting The Boy at the prison. Then another scene of her visiting him at the prison. We see an extended scene of her practicing the "sexy walk". Then another scene of her practicing some more. Notable added footage includes a courtroom scene of her fighting for her baby's custody. We also learn of the fate of the baby at the end (the lack of which leaves a loose end in Kino and Cohen's presentations of "Intolerance").
The 63-minute "The Fall of Babylon", also untinted, is much better-looking in 1080p, with more visible details and finer grain. Sadly, it is also an inferior version to the one shown in "Intolerance". It opens with an alternate take of the Boy flirting with the Mountain Girl, a scene that is so soft and sedate that it strips the Mountain Girl of any personality (perhaps an attempt to make her more feminine?). The battle scenes also lack some of the same missing footage I mentioned earlier in my review: the severed head shot, the old woman's offering to Ishtar, etc. Most disappointingly, it doesn't even have the signature aerial shot of Belshazzar's palace where the camera descends from the air all the way to ground level. Added footage includes a much improved scene of the Mountain Girl peering into the palace to catch a glimpse of Belshazzar; we see a frontal closeup of her staring longingly and winking at her beloved king. This cute moment is totally missing in the Image, Kino, and Cohen's edition of "Intolerance". Like "The Mother and the Law", there is added footage that seems like filler. We also get a "happy" ending for The Mountain Girl that may seem a touch less poetic than the one in "Intolerance".