Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916)
Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 3 hrs. 17 min.

Release Date: September 5th, 1916 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: D.W. Griffith Actors: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, Sam De Grasse, Vera Lewis, Miriam Cooper, Walter Long, Howard Gaye, Bessie Love, George Walsh, Margery Wilson, Eugene Pallette, Constance Talmadge, Josephine Crowell, Alfred Paget, Tully Marshall

 


 

“I

ntolerance” intends to portray the common theme of intolerance throughout four separate stories (further divided into two acts, with an intermission in the middle), cutting back and forth between them for a colossal three hours. Despite the considerable time used to relate the tales, the initial 20 minutes are somewhat confusing, flashing dozens of title cards onscreen to detail time periods, locations, people, and definitions of religious groups. There are, in fact, so many characters and setting changes that it’s no small task to sort them all out (shifts in color-tinting only add to the problem, since they’re not organized by specific hues). The film even acknowledges this, putting additional intertitles up to denote the reorientation when a scene transitions to the next chapter of a following yarn.

The first story is set in a western city in present day (1916), where several ladies band together for the humanity of it, calling themselves the Uplifters (a charitable group seeking the power of influence and, once obtaining it, transforming into merciless judges of society). Their goal is to coerce Miss Mary T. Jenkins (Vera Lewis), the unmarried sister of an autocratic, industrialist overlord (Sam De Grasse), to part with some of her money to fund reform. At a lavish gala, the elderly Jenkins is reminded of how old and alone she is, which makes her just that much more susceptible to manipulation. Not too far away, a dear young girl (Mae Marsh) keeps house for her father, who works in a Jenkins mill (part of The Allied Manufacturers Association). She watches over a small lot of farm animals, oblivious to a boy (Robert Harron) who ends up falling for her, and the ongoing abuses of the greedy corporation, which employs militias and guards to force its underpaid workers from revolting – ending in a clash nevertheless, which claims the life of the boy’s father and creates an exodus for job searches elsewhere.

The second story centers on an ancient people in Jerusalem, near the Jaffa Gate (the shortest of the bunch); the third story is set in A.D. 1572 in Paris, during the time of Catherine de Medici (the least immersive); and the fourth story takes place in Imgur Bel, Babylon, 539 B.C. (the most visually impressive). The last three tales are biblical or historical recreations, featuring the humor of a marriage-market decree for an incorrigible, onion-eating, mountain woman; the quiet power of Jesus conducting miracles; Cyrus, the world-conquering Persian colluding with the treacherous priest of Bel to overthrow Babylon (culminating in an astonishingly violent, destructive onslaught); the threat of the Huguenots rallying the violent might of the Catholics, who lash out with a massacre; and even elaborate dancing celebrations in honor of victories in battle. And many of these sequences use an iconic segue of a woman (Lillian Gish) eternally rocking a cradle in solitude (obvious symbolism for a not-so-obvious, abstract notion).

“What a wonderful man, if he only thought as we do.” As it so happens, it’s the present-day drama that exhibits the greatest potency, involving widespread poverty, a frame-up with prison time, single-motherhood, the seizing of the woman’s baby, attempted rape, jealousy that leads to murder, and a harrowing trial against an innocent. It’s not just the familiarity and down-to-earth qualities of the participants; the premise is more moving than the other apologues – even though the interpretations of ancient times boast the spectacle of large-scale battles, death-defying stunts, intricate costuming and set designs and weapons of war, and hundreds of extras. It’s also the only one not to use religion as a source of antagonism. As it draws to its conclusion, boasting a high-speed pursuit of a train by a car, striving to stop an execution at the last second, it becomes evident that this story could have stood alone (and likely played better in that format).

As the four chronicles grow more complicated and comprehensive, the initial focus on intolerance is set aside for grander drama. They’re no longer simple allegories, but fully-fleshed epics with rich characters and engaging plots (and enough content for more than one movie). Once again, the filmmakers are aware of this, feeling it necessary to reiterate that intolerance is still an unsubsiding theme. But romances take precedence, along with deaths and villainy and betrayals, rife with comedy (including sarcastic intertitles), action, suspense, and tragedy. A well-rounded mix of seemingly unrelated yet purposefully comparative and paralleling dramas (though it would have worked more smoothly with only two of the four segments), “Intolerance” reinforces director D.W. Griffith’s place as a master crafter of grandiose cinema, while also serving as something of a response to the criticisms of his previous epic, “The Birth of a Nation” – which raised questions of intolerance in its creator.

– Mike Massie

  • 9/10