November 1, 2019
Intolerance (1916)
Grade: 59/100

Director: D.W. Griffith
Stars: Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, Constance Talmadge

What it's about. Early silent film era Director D.W. Griffith revolutionized cinema with his feature Birth of a Nation (1915). But its success generated a backlash from those who believed the film was racist in its depiction of blacks, and misrepresented the Ku Klux Klan as a righteous vigilante group instead of an intolerant terror organization.

Griffith was apparently stung by those critics. His very next feature attempted to placate them by depicting intolerance in four different historical eras. The intolerance leads to the fall of the Babylonian Empire, the death of Christ, the slaughter of the Huguenots in France, and to the near-hanging of an innocent man. Brief clips of a young mother (Lillian Gish) rocking a cradle serves as a bridge between the distinct stories.

The four stories are interspersed, but some receive more screen time than others. The story of Christ (Howard Gaye) is abbreviated into only a few scenes, such as the miracle of turning water into wine; ending the stoning of an adulteress; and his crucifixion.

Also given short shrift is the Huguenot story. Diffident french king Charles IX (Frank Bennett) is misled by his malevolent Catholic brother and mother (Maxfield Stanley, Josephine Crowell) into the 1572 St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of a community of Huguenot protestants that include innocent young woman Brown Eyes (Margary Wilson).

The other two stories dominate the film, and in fact were compiled into separate movies released in 1919, The Fall of Babylon and The Mother and the Law.

The latter details the actions of meddling upper-class socialites and their impact on two families in a present-day (1916) American city. The Dear One (Mae Marsh) is left in dire poverty following the death of her dominating father (F.A. Turner). She marries The Boy (Robert Harron), a member in a criminal ring led by The Musketeer (Walter Long).

The Boy tries to leave the ring, and is framed by The Musketeer. He is imprisoned. The Dear One gives birth to his child, but the meddling socialites take away her child, who is neglected in a ward. The Boy is released from prison, and finds The Dear One resisting the romantic advances of The Musketeer.

Meanwhile, The Musketeer's wife, The Friendless One (Miriam Cooper), stalks her husband and, through an window, witnesses his infidelity. She shoots him and flees. The Boy is convicted of the murder and sentenced to hang. But can The Dear One's neighbor, The Kindly Policeman (Tom Wilson) convince The Governor (Ralph Lewis) to pardon The Boy in time to stop his execution?

But the audience really came to see The Fall of Babylon. In this story, set in 539 B.C., Persian king Cyrus (George Siegmann) conquers Babylon and its pointy-bearded ruler Belshazzar (Alfred Paget) due to the treachery of a Babylonian priest (Tully Marshall) who is angry at the Babylonian worship of the goddess Ishtar. Also in this story is Amazon-ish warrior The Mountain Girl (Constance Talmadge), her would-be boyfriend (Elmer Clifton), and Belshazzar's devoted wife Princess Beloved (Seena Owen).

How others will see it. While Birth of a Nation was a great financial success, Intolerance was comparably a bust, due to its greater production cost. The sets, costumes, and large cast of extras, particularly for the Babylon story, were responsible. Nonetheless, Griffith went on to make further celebrated movies, especially Hearts of the World, Broken Blossoms, and Orphans of the Storm, all starring Lillian Gish who was also first-billed in Intolerance and Birth of a Nation.

Today, Intolerance ranks among the best known silent films. In 1989, it was added to the National Film Registry. At, it has a respectable 13K user votes and a very high user rating of 7.8 out of 10. The ratings vary only among women viewers. Women under 30 grade it 7.2, while women over 45 see it higher at 8.1.

The user reviews praise Griffith's flawed-but-fascinating efforts at recreating the glories and excesses of ancient Babylon, and his attempt to impose a theme (that of intolerance) on the vast panoply of human history.

How I felt about it. The Christ story is so short that it is ineffective relative to the 2004 Mel Gibson version (The Passion of the Christ), or even the silent epic Ben-Hur (1925).

The Huguenot story is hampered by unconvincing scenes of the French court. Much is made of Henry III's effeminate personality, and his mother is reminiscent of the Queen of Hearts from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." Though much less amusing.

But the depicted mass murder of a religious minority community is horrifying, and much more effective. It presages the murder of French Jews by Nazi occupiers a quarter-century later.

The modern-day 1916 is unbelievable throughout, from the childlike innocence of The Dear One, the framing of The Boy, the sniper-like activities of The Friendless One, up to the last-moment stay of execution. We also wonder about The Friendless One's confession. Apparently, she will not be prosecuted for gunning down her husband and letting The Boy take the fall, while The Boy was to be hanged for the same crime.

More entertaining is the Fall of Babylon, with its collosal sets, crazed extra scenes, and comely tomboy Mountain Girl. The characters and events also lack credibility, but it must be admitted that Griffith puts on a good show.