Intolerance (1916)

“For in spite of its utter incoherence, the questionable taste of some of its scenes and the cheap banalities into which it sometimes lapses, Intolerance is an interesting and unusual picture.”[1]

Intolerance – (noun) the quality or state of being intolerant[2]

            This word gets thrown around a lot in this movie. D.W. Griffith made this film to show how intolerance has affected people through the ages, most notably, young lovers. The film could be considered a love story, however, it’s in the same vein as Romeo and Juliet – love comes at a cost.

The second film Griffith made and the most expensive ever made at the time, Intolerance is composed of four story lines. The first is present day circa 1916, the second takes place in ancient Babylon during the reign of Belshazzar, the third involves the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in sixteenth century France, and the fourth is the story of Jesus Christ. With the exception of the latter, all three stories focus on Young Love, and feature couples in various states of relationships. But the intolerance depicted isn’t directed at the Young Lovers, so to speak. Instead, they’re at the center of intolerant movements.

These movements are politically and religiously based. In the 1916 storyline, a group of older women known as the Uplifters strive to “clean up” the city by getting rid of vices like drinking and dancing.[3] This effort causes a strike at the local factory, which causes the main characters to leave for The Big City. However, the Uplifters continue their crusade, expanding their efforts to condemn “unfit mothers.” This directly affects The Dear One (Mae Marsh), who has married The Boy (Robert Harron). After moving to the city, The Boy turns to a life of crime and is jailed; his child is later forcibly taken from his wife after the Uplifters decide she is unfit to raise it. The audience knows that this is not the case, but due to the intolerance of any social vices (The Dear One is caught with whiskey to treat a cold), the Uplifters are unable to see reason, or deviate from their own path of righteousness.

 In Babylon and France, the intolerance stems from opposing religions. In Babylon, the population is starting to worship the goddess Ishtar instead of the god of Babylon. While Prince Belshazzar (Alfred Paget) is depicted as an “apostle of tolerance and religious freedom,”[4] the High Priest of Bel (Tully Marshall) is more concerned with his loss of power. So, he commits treason and betrays the city to Cyrus the Great of Persia, who attacks Babylon while they are celebrating the defeat of Persia in a previous battle.

In France, the intolerance is based on the struggle between the Catholics and the Huguenots (that is, Protestants). The love story, between a Huguenot girl and a Catholic man, is centered around the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, where French Catholics went out to kill all Huguenots. And that’s essentially the plot for the third storyline. This and the fourth storyline, about Jesus Christ, get the least amount of screen time. This was done for a couple of reasons: one, a general audience would not know about the Massacre, and while the Christ story is popular and well known, the inclusion of those scenes is “always a questionable proceeding if the feelings of many are to be respected.”[5] And two, Griffith gets an excuse to use all the extras and the most epic sets and special effects for Babylon. [6]

The outcome of all these intolerance movements is tragic. The lovers in sixteenth-century France die in the Massacre, never getting a chance to wed. Prince Belshazzar commits suicide with his mistress and her entourage, essentially giving the victory to Persia. Jesus is crucified on the cross, the result of intolerance from Jewish religious officials. Literally all the characters die in this movie.

Except in the 1916 storyline. Through a turn of events, The Boy is convicted of murder and sentenced to hang. The Dear One and supporting characters find the real murderer and manage to save The Boy’s life in the nick of time. They are reunited, but it comes with the sense of extreme loss: The Boy has been jailed twice in the same movie, and The Dear One lost her father, husband, and baby as a result of the Uplifter’s policies. It is unclear what happens to the couple after this movie; it’s not even told if they get their baby back. According to Griffith, there are no happy endings when intolerance is involved.

Or is there? The ending shows the Second Coming of Christ, where there is no intolerance. So rather, the happy ending does not come on earth, but rather, from heaven.

So, what makes this movie essential?

Honestly, I’m not sure. This is the earliest movie selected in this book, so it’s hard to say without prior understanding of what came before it. However, we do have one clue: Birth of a Nation. Griffith’s first film, it’s a Civil War epic before Margaret Mitchel wrote Gone with the Wind. Today, it’s best known for its portrayal of the Klu Klux Klan. There were protests after Nation was released, and rightly so. So Griffith made Intolerance, partly in response to the backlash he received. Therefore, Intolerance could be viewed as the first reactionary movie, made in response to a bigger social problem. Like Get Out was made in a time of heightened racial tension, Intolerance was made to speak to, well, intolerance in general. But mostly to serve Griffith after people hated his first film. In a way, Griffith set another Hollywood precedent: making a film to protect one’s self-image and legacy.


[1] Anonymous, “Intolerance,” The New York Times Book of Movies, ed. Schroeder, Wallace, New York, NY: Universe, 544.

[2] Merriam Webster.com Dictionary s.v. “intolerance,” accessed January 24, 2021 https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/intolerance

[3] It should be noted that these past times in and of themselves are not destructive, but have been continually weaponized as a form of control. See: Footloose (1984)

[4] Intolerance, directed by D.W. Griffith (1916; Culver City, CA: Triangle Film Corporation, 1916) Digital

[5] Book of Movies, 547

[6] “Epic Babylonia Crain Shots from Intolerance (1916) (HD),” YouTube.com, uploaded by ThatSceneFrom.com, published December 20, 2013, accessed January 24, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cM5hVs2UB4s

7. Movie Poster: “Theatrical Poster,” “Intolerance (film),” Wikipedia.com, accessed January 24, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intolerance_(film)

8. Girl and Cradle Picture: “Lillian Gish as ‘Eternal Motherhood,'” “Intolerance (film),” Wikipedia.com, accessed January 24, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intolerance_(film)

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