Intolerance (1916)

Film Review


Release Date: 5 September, 1916

Studio: Triangle Distributing Corporation

Director: D.W. Griffith

Starring: Mae March, Robert Harron, Howard Gaye, Margery Wilson, Eugene Pallette, Josephine Crowell, Constance Talmedge, Alfred Paget, Lillian Gish

Special Notes: Great American Films, 1911-1920

This film has been selected to our list of Great American Films, 1911-1920, which focuses on obscure and under-appreciated American film masterpieces.


Four stories are introduced and interwoven so that the film continually turns from one to the next. Each story reaches its climax at the end of the film. The stories are linked by the common theme that through all ages hatred and intolerance have opposed love and charity. A scene of a woman (played by Lillian Gish) rocking a cradle serves as the link between the shifting narratives. The rocking cradle represents the endless ages of shared passions, joys, and sorrows. The synopsis will not turn from story to story as in the film, but will tell each story completely in turn. The Modern and Babylon stories are longer and more complex than the France and Ancient Nazareth Stories.

Story 1: Modern Day

The Uplifters, members of a reform movement directed at the urban lower classes, seek money and support from Miss Jenkins, the embittered, unmarried sister of a wealthy industrialist. The Dear One's father is employed at the Jenkins mill. The Boy and his father also work at the mill. As a result of a strike, the Dear One, her father, the Boy, and the Friendless One move to a nearby city, where they live in the same lower class district. The Boy joins a gang run by the Musketeer of the Slums. The Friendless One becomes the Musketeer's girlfriend. After her father dies, the Dear One and the Boy marry. The Boy accepts the Dear One's faith and follows her gentle and loving ways. When he quits the Musketeer, he also hands over his revolver. The Musketeer then arranges a frame-up of the Boy, who is arrested for robbery and sent to jail. The Dear One is alone when she has her baby. The Uplifters investigate the Dear One and report her as a "negligent mother," and seize the baby.

In a large ward, the baby lies in a crib being cared for by two nurses. The Musketeer visits the miserable Dear One and promises to recover her baby. His visits rouse the jealousy of the Friendless One. The Boy, released from jail, is greeted joyously by the Dear One. One afternoon when the Boy is not home, the Musketeer goes to visit the Dear One. The jealous Friendless One takes the Boy's revolver and follows him. The Musketeer is attacking the Dear One when the Boy rushes home. During their fight, the Dear One is thrown to the floor and the Musketeer knocks out the Boy with a chair. The distraught Friendless One, hiding on a ledge outside the room, shoots the Musketeer, throws the gun into the room, jumps from the ledge, and runs away. The Boy, arrested for murder, is tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang. The Friendless One, attending the trial out of guilt, nonetheless does not give herself up. A kind-hearted policeman takes the Dear One to the governor to plead for the Boy, but the governor refuses to intervene.

On the Boy's last dawn, the Dear One and the Kindly Heart go again to the governor who again refuses their request. He leaves to board his train. The Kindly Heart approaches the Friendless One who has followed them. When he questions her, she admits her guilt. They get a cab and pursue the governor. The Boy receives confession and the sacrament and walks toward the scaffold. The cab arrives too late to stop the governor's train, but they board a handy racing car, and the driver pursues the train. The car driver stops the train by driving the car on the tracks. The Friendless One confesses, and the governor grants a pardon. They race to the prison to stop the execution. They arrive just in time. The Boy has walked up the steps to the scaffold, his head is hooded, and the guards are about to release the platform when they run in with the pardon. The Boy, released, embraces and kisses his wife. At home once again, the baby is returned, and the little family is happily reunited.

Story 2: Ancient Nazareth

In ancient Jerusalem, the Pharisees are prominent members of society. When certain hypocrites among them are out walking, they often stop to pray. During these moments of prayer they demand that all action cease. In his self-laudatory prayer, the Pharisee thanks the Lord that he is better than other men.

Jesus attends the marriage at Cana. When the wine runs out, he performs a miracle by changing water into wine. The hypocrite Pharisees, testing him, ask Jesus if a woman taken in adultery should be stoned. Jesus says, "Let him without sin throw the first stone." The crowd disperses, and the condemned woman bows before him.

After the judgment of Pontius Pilate, Christ is condemned to be crucified. He carries his cross through the streets. A crowd views Christ on the cross. The light of Christ permeates the world.

Story 3: France, 1572

Catherine de Medici and her son Charles IX, King of France, hold court in an opulent throne room. Catherine and her party are enraged because the King grants favors to Admiral Coligny, head of the Huguenots. Catherine and her party harass the reluctant King to agree to the slaughter of the Huguenots. Charles finally acquiesces, but commands that all the Huguenots must be killed so none are left to upbraid him.

A beautiful young Huguenot, Brown Eyes, engaged to Prosper Latour, attracts the amorous attention of a mercenary soldier. On St Bartholomew's eve, Brown Eyes goes to bed looking forward to her marriage the next day. On St Bartholomew's morn, the ringing of the bells signals the massacre. Brown Eyes awakes to the sounds of screaming. Prosper learns of the massacre, obtains badges of safety, and hurries to rescue his loved ones. Soldiers invade their home and kill Brown Eyes' family. The amorous mercenary soldier grasps Brown Eyes, but she fights him, and he runs her through with his sword. Prosper arrives too late. He is shot and killed by the mercenaries as he carries the body of Brown Eyes out her door.

Story 4: Babylon, 539 B.C.

The great gate of Imgur Bel, which no enemy has ever forced, opens through the 300 ft high walls of Babylon. The contented citizens of Babylon enjoy peace and plenty under the progressive leadership of Prince Belshazzar, apostle of tolerance and religious freedom. Belshazzar worships Ishtar, goddess of love. However, a few of Belshazzar's subjects are unhappy with his leadership. The High Priest of Bel, the supreme god, gazes angrily out his tower window at a shrine honoring Ishtar. The High Priest is jealous of the worship of Ishtar, whose rise has decreased his own power.

The Rhapsode, singer, poet, and agent of the High Priest of Bel, attempts to romance the pretty Mountain Girl, who scorns him. The brother of the Mountain Girl disapproves of her independent attitude. He drags her to the marriage market where women, provided with dowries, are offered up as brides. She threatens any man who shows an interest in her, then is angry when no man wants her. Passing through the market, Belshazzar takes an interest in the Mountain Girl. He gives her a seal which permits her to marry or not as she chooses. The Mountain Girl, smitten with Belshazzar, tells the amorous Rhapsode that she will only marry a soldier. Belshazzar already has several wives, of whom Princess Beloved is his favorite.

In the Persian camp, the Priest of Bel makes a secret pact with Cyrus the Great, the conqueror. Cyrus has gathered a huge army of Medes, Persians, Ethiopians, and Barbarians to attack Babylon. The gate of Imgur Bel is closed, and on the walls, Belshazzar leads the city's defense. The Mountain Girl dons armor and fights among the soldiers. Her brother and the Rhapsode also fight. The Persian army raises siege towers and tries to break through the gate. The city is assaulted from all sides. The defenders are armed with bow and arrow, spear, rock throwers, and catapults flinging burning oil. The battle continues all night. Morning brings fresh assaults, and a flaming engine lumbers out the gate to set fire to the siege towers. Repulsed, the army of Cyrus retreats. The citizens of Babylon rejoice. Victorious Belshazzar embraces Princess Beloved. Only by treachery will Babylon fall.

The city celebrates the Feast of Belshazzar. Belshazzar and Princess Beloved praise Ishtar. From his tower the priest of Bel overlooks the festivities and predicts that Cyrus will avenge Bel. The feasting goes on for many days. In secret, the Rhapode prepares a chariot and guides the priests of Bel to the camp of Cyrus. Suspicious, the Mountain Girl follows them. The army of Cyrus begins another advance on unsuspecting Babylon. The Mountain Girl races to warn Belshazzar. In Babylon, Belshazzar tells Princess Beloved that he will soon begin building her a city. The Mountain Girl pushes through the celebrants and warns Belshazzar, who doubts her story. The treacherous priests of Bel betray the city and open the great gate to the army of Cyrus. The citizens of Babylon, unprepared for battle, scatter in terror before the hordes of Cyrus. Belshazzar, finally convinced that the Persians have returned, runs to fight. Only twelve guards stand at the palace gates, and they quickly perish. The Mountain Girl, fighting for Belshazzar, is pierced by arrows. To avoid the disgrace of captivity, Belshazzar and Princess Beloved kill themselves. As his hoards overrun the city, the citizens bow before Cyrus, their new lord.

A final tableaux pictures the descent of the Heavenly Host that stops all wars. Flowery fields replace prison walls. Children embrace. A great light from heaven floods the land. Perfect love brings peace and forgiveness. The cradle, endlessly rocking, unites all humans through the ages.


Griffith's previous film, The Birth of a Nation, had been met with nationwide protests and boycotts due to its racist themes. Griffith felt that his film had not received fair consideration, and Intolerance was his answer to what he felt were unjust restrictions on his right of free speech. The central theme of the film is that intolerance has destroyed human peace and freedom through the ages, and that the perfect love offered by heaven can bring harmony and freedom to all people.

Intolerance is one of the most complex films ever made. Three complete stories, and scenes from the life of Christ, are followed simultaneously, with the film cutting back and forth between them. Interweaving the stories in this way helps sustains the tension in each as they build towards their climaxes. Griffith's expert editing also maintains the focus on the film's forceful, if somewhat simplistic, central themes.

The massive scope and grandeur of Intolerance exceeds that of Griffith's previous epic The Birth of a Nation. No previous American film (and few since) had story, setpieces, costumes and number of extras on such a lavish scale. The Babylon set, in particular, was built to leave the spectator astonished at its size, the giant statuary decorating its walls, and the enormous number of extras.