Let’s talk about about the OG Babylon — not as it was, perhaps, but as we have envisioned it. For instance, let’s consider D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance, his insanely ambitious film of 1916, made in part to counter the idea, shared by many viewers of Birth of a Nation (1915), that he himself advocated intolerance towards Black people. Griffith decided to interlace four stories from four different periods of history, each of which in his mind illustrates the sin of intolerance. In fact, only one of them, the story of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre in France (1572) seems to me to concern intolerance as such. The others are about power and moralism and various other matters, and are tied together (though not really) by a weird image of Lillian Gish rocking a cradle, with three women — the Fates, I guess — in the background. I often think of Pauline Kael’s view of this film as “the greatest extravaganza and the greatest folly in movie history, an epic celebration of the potentialities of the new medium”; “a great, desperate, innovative, ruinous film”; an abject failure and also the greatest film ever made. (She wrote that in 1968.)
But let’s talk about Babylon. Griffith depicts Babylon at the end of the reign of Belshazzar, who is threatened by a possible Persian invasion but seems unaware of the danger. It’s a picture of Babylon that gets more complicated the more you think about it.
Belshazzar moves through his world in a kind of daze, as though intoxicated or drugged, but what intoxicates him is beauty: he is besotted with the Princess Beloved (pictured above), and the environment which he has built around him is one of constant singing and dancing, almost all of the dancing being done by women in diaphanous gowns (with nothing under them – this was pre-code Hollywood). Belshazzar is a devoté of Ishtar, goddess of love, which has aroused the jealousy of the priest of Bel-Marduk, the former chief God of the city. (I call this jealousy, and power-hunger, as opposed to “intolerance.”) He is kindly and generous, but also — well, decadent. And of course this is the defining image, in later culture, of Babylon.
Belshazzar, then, enjoys the pleasurable privileges of rule but seems to be unaware of his kingly responsibilities. Now, to Griffith this is clearly preferable to the sheer bloodlust of the Persian king Cyrus, who, as he prepares his invasion and conquest, out-Herods Herod. Against this determined tyranny, the gentle eroticism of Belshazzar is helpless.
But here’s a key point: it’s possible to think very differently about the character of both Belshazzar and Cyrus than Griffith does, but in order to do that, we would need to consider some people who are completely absent from Griffith’s depiction. I refer, of course, to the Jews. They’ll be the subject of my next entry.