Intolerance (1916)

directed by D.W. Griffith

Plot Summary
Four seperate stories are woven together, each one commenting on how "hatred and intolerance, through the ages, have battled against love and charity": a Modern story dealing with a workers strike and a man wrongly accused of murder, a Babylonian tale involving the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Persian (538 B.C.), the life and Crucifixion of Christ in Judea, and the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of Huguenots in France (1572 A.D.). The Modern story deals with various people forced into the same neigborhood because of a violently supressed workers' strike. A virtuous young woman referred to as The Dear One gets married to The Boy, and they have a child. A group of reform women wrongly consider the Dear One a bad mother and have her baby taken away. The Boy is later incorrectly convicted of murdering his old crime boss and is scheduled to be hanged. Evidence turns up that he is innocent, and there is a successful last minute rescue to save his life. The couple are reunited with their child. The Babyloninan tale centers on a feisty Mountain Girl who becomes devoted to Prince Belshazzar, a powerful leader who promotes religious freedom. A rival sect plans to help the Persians overthrow Babylon, and there is a subsequent battle that the Babylonians win. They begin celebrating, but the Mountain Girl discovers another plot to destroy the city. She races back to warn Belshazzar, but they cannot mount a defense in time and are both killed as the city is conquered. The Judean story begins illustrating some self-rightous Pharisees. It then details some of Christ's deeds and miracles and ends with his Crucifixion. The French story involves the doomed love of two Huguenots, Brown Eyes and Prosper Latour, who are both killed in the massacre at the end of the story. The stories are intercut among each other and linked by a transitional shot of a mother rocking a cradle that symbolizes man's continuous struggle. As each of the stories draws to a close, the intercutting becomes faster, and the transition is left out. An epilogue symbolically shows Good triumphing over Evil: a prison turns into a peaceful meadow, a battlesite turns into a field with playing children, and fighting soldiers become peaceful as figures in Heaven descend towards Earth.


A gargantuan film that is comparable to an encyclopedia of cinematic technique and an experiment in narrative structure, Intolerance is probably D.W. Griffith’s best work. It practically defines the term ‘epic’ in film terms with its plethora of characters and broad, sweeping view of history. Regrettably, as epics tend to do, it loses some of its focus and cohesiveness among the four intercut stories. But the stunning climax makes good use of these varied events to achieve a considerable amount of suspense and pathos before the idealistic and uplifting finale. Intolerance, therefore, emerges as a slightly uneven viewing experience whose synthesis of and additions to film language strongly influenced cinema throughout the world at an early point in its history. Its debtors range from Sergei Eisenstein and Soviet montage to Cecil B. DeMille and the classical continuity system. Griffith’s work undoubtedly led to the way movies are made today; it’s a testament to his craft that films like Intolerance, in spite of its melodramatic tone, can still affect modern audiences.

Of course, it is not just Griffith’s expressive cutting and direction that makes the film still viewable. His frequent cinematographer G.W. Bitzer deserves some of the credit for the film’s look and innovations. Like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the film benefits greatly from its detailed sets, albeit in a different manner—to add rather than combat realism. Intolerance’s mise-en-scene succeeds in giving verisimilitude to the look and events of the different eras. The colossal Babylonian set really stands out, and the incredible elevator tower tracking maneuver is the most memorable shot in the film. The camera’s love for capturing motion results in the fantastic medium shot of the Babylonian dancers and their symmetrical motions. Amid all the rapid cutting, longer takes like this one give the viewer a chance to breathe and to study the pleasing aesthetic simplicity of the choreography within the frame. This self-contained expressiveness contrasts with most of the film’s effectiveness that is derived from montage or the combination of shots. Some of the actresses such as Mae Marsh, Miriam Cooper, and (especially) Constance Talmadge as the Mountain Girl give memorable performances. Talmadge invests her character with a spirited and powerful energy that livens up the picture; I think I saw her bite a goat’s ear in one scene. Her performance is quite different from the normal melodramatic female roles that dominate movies in this period. Certain individual elements of the film are interesting when looked at in isolation, but the four-story structure is its most striking aspect.

The intercutting between the four different eras allows thematic comparisons to be drawn and gives the film a grander, weightier feel. The problem is keeping up with the numerous characters across the different timeframes—things are a bit muddled, particularly at the beginning. The many title cards are apparently necessary to explain the action; but perhaps some of them could have been inferred from the visuals, and less would have been more. The beautifully lit transition shot with the "rocking cradle" quote and the differing books in the intertitles’ backgrounds signal when and where the next scene will occur. Both of these devices also serve to link the film to literature in an attempt to give it, and cinema in general, respect as an art form and to cultivate a middle class audience. Unfortunately, for as often as it appears, the transition shot doesn’t integrate the stories as much as hoped, and it also could have been used more sparingly. Also, ideally, the time devoted to each story would be more evenly distributed; the Biblical and Huguenot segments are comparatively underdeveloped. In spite of the inevitable unwieldiness of linking these plots together, the film manages to draw some comparisons such as between the Pharisees and the reformers. All four accounts obviously show man’s intolerance of and inhumanity to man in varying degrees. But the real aim of cobbling the tales together is the thrilling and emotionally draining finale when everything comes together. This ending, and the film as a whole, works not only because of the effective editing techniques but also because of the symbolic elements within the sequences.

Expert camera work and telling mise-en-scene details are important assets. The film uses masks to turn battlefields and long shots into panoramic vistas. A thin, vertical frame emphasizes soldiers falling from towers during Babylonian fight scenes. Desperate rescues in the Modern and Babylonian stories are stirringly captured, presumably by having the camera mounted in an automobile. The well-directed murder sequence in the Modern tale lets the viewer see both inside and outside the apartment and establishes clear spatial relationships. This technical mastery and inventiveness is certainly impressive, but perhaps most surprising is the symbolic realism that expresses concepts and feelings visually. This metaphorical device, like many of Griffith’s ideas, has its roots in the 19th Century novel. The factory owner who orders guards to attack the striking workers is shown isolated in a large room, emphasizing the class conflict and the distance between him and his workers. The Mountain Girl stands atop a pedestal while the men try to purchase her for marriage; the title emphasizes the point with something to the effect of "perhaps not too different from today". Another brilliant example is a shot of the three strings that when cut will cause the hanging of the Boy. Blades hover nervously over each of the three strings creating a keen sense of tension as well as showing the character’s life literally ‘hanging by a thread.’ On another level this series of shots illustrates the almost detached process the officials carry out in order to hang a man. A final instance of this symbolism involves the miniature chariot pulled by two white doves that the Babylonian princess had used earlier to send a white rose to Prince Belshazzar. The conclusion of this story has the dying Mountain Girl crawling toward her beloved prince as Babylon falls. Her strength gone, she expires and beside her in the frame can be seen the tiny chariot, reminding one of her desperate but ultimately futile race to save the man she loves. It is a resonating, vaguely symbolic composition that verges on the poetic.

Intolerance, like most of Griffith’s work, falls into the category of melodrama with its clear-cut notions of Good and Evil and last minute resolutions. The first part of the Modern story dealing with the strike illustrates one of the problems associated with the nation’s switch from agrarianism to urban mass society and marks this part of the film as populist melodrama. Griffith probably yearned for the rural, simpler past as shown by his demonizing of the agents of change: the reformers. Perhaps also he saw these groups as being the leaders in denouncing The Birth of a Nation. The film paradoxically attacks some of those seeking change but looks toward the future for hope; the three historical plots end badly, while the Modern story offers a successful rescue. Following on this positive note is the inspirational conclusion which is both idealistic and impressive. Inmates beating upon a prison wall suddenly move through it, and the prison itself dissolves into a flowering field. The final shot of a ‘Heaven on Earth’ has peaceful soldiers celebrating with heavenly figures in the sky while a shining cross of light is superimposed on the image. This sequence succeeds because of its dazzling use of montage and technical innovations but also because, unlike The Birth of a Nation’s similar finale, its message and vision is respectable in spite of its simplicity.

There are even a couple ironic moments in the film that contrast with its sometimes sentimental melodrama. After the Dear One’s baby has been taken from her, a title card states that "hired mothers are never negligent". The camera then shows the nurses happily dancing with each other and neglecting the babies in their care. During the court scene there is some almost literally ‘gallows humor’ when the Boy’s inexperienced lawyer accidentally uses the word "hang" when pleading for his client. Unexpected scenes like this, as well as the acting and overall quality of production, keep the middle of the film watchable in the face of some awkward intercutting. Griffith’s powerful rhythmic editing as the stories draw to a close directly bred the Soviet montage movement led by Eisenstein and is comparable to his kinetic editing as well as that of Hitchcock and Kurosawa, for example. DeMille later embraced the film’s form of flamboyant spectacle followed by a moralistic ending. Intolerance surpasses The Birth of a Nation in most categories of cinematic value, but it sacrifices some of the coherence or focus that the earlier film maintained. Some critics' protests against Intolerance’s sermonizing and lack of ideas are understandable but seem harsh; it certainly compares favorably in these areas to the outright offensiveness of Griffith’s previous film. It is too bad the filmmaker didn’t notice the intolerance present in his own worldview for it has permanently marred his critical reputation. But Griffith’s innovations and importance are undeniable, and Intolerance is probably the best film to illustrate these talents and to witness the foundations being laid for effective modern filmmaking.

6 of 10

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© 1999

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