Le riprese di un colossal: Intolerance di D. W. Griffith

International Photo
Una scena del film Intolerance sulla copertina della rivista International Photographer, settembre 1934

D. W. Griffith e il suo operatore Billy Bitzer per una grande scena di masse del film Intolerance, costruirono una torre-piramide mobile, alta 140 piedi, che aveva una superficie di 6 piedi quadrati alla sommità mozza e di oltre 60 alla base; questo apparecchio correva, con 6 zoccoli a 4 ruote ciascuno, su rotaie, spinto da 25 uomini attraverso una massa di comparse radunata nel fastoso salone del re Baldassarre; e nello stesso tempo la macchina da presa saliva lentamente su per l’interno della torre mobile a mezzo di un ascensore, in maniera che, al termine della scena, l’iniziale campo lungo veniva a concludersi in un primo piano dei principi seduti su un alto trono.

L’intera scena fu girata alla luce del sole, con un unico apparecchio Pathé a mano. A molti altri notevoli particolari accenna ancora Billy Bitzer nell’articolo pubblicato dalla rivista International Photographer, che io posso offrirvi grazie al magnifico lavoro svolto dell’Internet Archive, che giusto oggi (la notte scorsa) ha subito un’incendio e avrebbe bisogno di tutti noi per continuare la sua opera. Potete leggere cosa è successo in questo post e, magari, dare una mano, detto questo ecco l’articolo:

Intolerance was made in Hollywood in 1915-’16 on Fine Arts lot, Sunset and Hollywood Boulevard, excepting the scenes taken of Cyrus’ Army, which were taken at Nigger Slough, down toward Culver City.

Every bit of this photography was taken in sunlight, except the night fire scenes of the Babylon towers and walls. These were taken at dusk and with flares. No 24s, 36s, sun arcs or electric lights of any kind were used and, if you remember the picture, you can imagine the original figuring in the placing of sets, all of which had to be shot in sunlight.

An Amazing Dolly

One set, the Feast of Belshazzar in the Babylon period, was set three-eights of a mile long and, in this scene, was used an amazing dolly that even at this time (and I do not want to belittle our present day marvelous photography and angles) has never been equalled for its effects and smoothness of operation. This dolly was one hundred and forty feet high, about six feet square at the top and some sixty feet wide at the bottom. It was mounted upon six sets of four-wheel railroad car trucks and had an elevator in the center. It ran upon tracks starting away back taking in the full scene, or entire set, upon which there were five thousand extras.

Walls 140 Feet High

This scene, or set, had walls one hundred and forty feet high all around it, upon which were huge elephants, many in number. Some of the walls were braced with telegraph poles and there were horses and chariots upon them.

Ishtar, a figure of the Goddess of Love, which looked puny in the full set, was thirty feet tall.

This great dolly was moved backward and forward by some twenty-five men, while another staff operated the elevator until from full set it ended in a close-up of large figures of the Prince and Princess seated at the throne, a pair of doves harnessed to a little golden chariot, carrying love missives between them, and the whole moving so smooth as to be delightful.

In fact, ten years later about this scene Richard Watts said in the New York Herald Tribune: “In this episode there occurs one of the most effective uses of the moving camera I have ever encountered — the scene where the camera moves slowly up the steps of the Babylon Palace.” You see the effect was quite the reverse of the method in which it was photographed.

The Intolerance Way

In some of the pictures I see today, when I learn of the methods used, I wonder why, instead of the apparently roundabout way which looks so mechanical, they are not done in the simpler and more real and effective “Intolerance” way. For instance in a scene showing apparently hundreds of chariots (Cyrus’ army) rushing to war, we simply hooked our Cyrus’ chariot to the side of our automobile, jiggled the shafts up and down (no horses on that one) and rode like hell in amongst all the other chariots. But more about this sort of stuff later. While I am at it this same writer said, when “Intolerance” was revived TEN YEARS LATER: “Here is photoplay pageantry that for richness of fine composition and general beauty is so impressive that it should make the producers of the expensive ‘Ben Hur’ to feel just a bit ashamed of themselves.”

How It Was Shot

This whole scene was made on only one hand cranked Pathe camera. Karl Brown did the cranking, seated underneath the Pathe, through a flexible shaft, and I did the handling of the tilt and pan cranks, looking directly through the Pathe eye-piece focusing glass in the back door of the Pathe on to the film, with a special eye-piece of rubber which fitted around my eye to keep the light from fogging the film.

The highest number of cameras used on the biggest spectacular scenes of the different periods were never more than four — all Pathes and, at no time in the ordinary scenes made in this picture, which took one and one-half years to photograph, was more than one camera used.

Karl Brown Enters

And right here I want to tell you about the wonderful assistant I had in Karl Brown, who was more than an assistant — an inspiration, a practical dreamer, as he later proved in his works in the photographic continuity of lighting in “The Covered Wagon”; that most admirable Tennessee mountain story, “Stark Love” — an intelligent cameraman. Pleasant memories come to me as I recall our working together. His constructive mind helped me greatly in securing effects photographic in “Intolerance.”

There was one and one-quarter million (1,250,000) feet of lumber used in “Intolerance.” The carpenters received two and two and one-half dollars a day, worked each day until finished — no overtime. Extras received five dollars a day and, as I said before, no electricians were ever used. We called the picture “THE SUN PLAY OF THE AGES.”

A $15,000,000 Picture

I have calculated roughly, that at the present scale of wages this picture would have cost over fifteen million dollars ($15,000,000). We were assisted by some of the best scientists in the world. Also in this picture made way back there you see flame throwing machines, poison gas, etc. You won’t believe this, but it’s there and, too, molten lead was used. Some of the moving fighting towers were as tall as the walls and were pushed toward the walls by elephants.

There were seven hundred and fifty (750) horses used; sixty (60) of the persons used became great; sixteen (16) became stars — and some who had the leading parts were never heard of in a big way again.


In the four stories — The Babylon of Belshazzar ; The France of Catherine de Medici (French Huguenot period); The Jerusalem of Christ, and America before the World War, there were more than one thousand different kinds of costumes used.

When the fire throwing scenes were in full blast (fire being thrown from the moving fighting towers and from the walls) the neighbors living in little bungalows on streets adjoining the sets summoned the fire department and the big red ladder trucks and apparatus rushed past the gate guards into the scene upon which there were thousands of extras in action and spoiled nine or ten feet of film.

No Casualties

Remember we had only one camera running. Maybe Karl was grinding, too. I don’t recall, despite the fact that one saw apparently hundreds of soldiers falling from one hundred and forty foot walls. In the closer views we used professional jumpers and nets. There were no casualties. We had an ambulance and corps of doctors and nurses, but only minor cuts and headaches happened. “Intolerance” had in it the whole of civilized history combined.

Billy Bitzer
(International Photographer, Hollywood, California, October 1934)