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Film / Intolerance

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"Our play is made up of four separate stories, laid in different periods of history, each with its own set of characters. Each story shows how hatred and intolerance, through all the ages, have battled against love and charity."
Opening title card

Intolerance is a 1916 silent film, directed by D. W. Griffith, with four stories about mankind's intolerance. Each story takes place in a separate time and place in world history. Rather than being told sequentially, the film constantly cuts from one story to another, establishing moral and psychological links between all of them — effectively telling all four stories in parallel.

It was made in direct response to Griffith's previous film, The Birth of a Nation. Some stories hold that Griffith was The Atoner after the backlash to that horrifically racist film. The truth, however, is that Griffith thought the outrage against his Magnum Opus was an example of political correctness, and felt the "intolerance" had been directed at him. Regardless of what sparked its creation, this film itself is not specifically about race relations.

The four stories are:

  • "The Fall of Babylon", 539 BC, depicting the destruction of Babylon by the Persians. Starring Constance Talmadge as the Mountain Girl.
  • "The Crucifixion of Jesus", 27 AD, starring Howard Gaye as Jesus.
  • "The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre" in 1572 during the French Wars of Religion, starring Margery Wilson as Brown Eyes and Eugene Palette as Prosper.
  • "The Mother and the Law", 1914, depicting crime, moral puritanism, and conflicts between capitalists and striking workers in America, causing hardship and suffering to those caught in the crossfire. Starring Mae Marsh as the Dear One, Robert Harron as the Boy, and Miriam Cooper as the Friendless One.

The original concept was to give equal time to all four stories, but that would have made for an even longer film than the massive product Griffith eventually released. The St. Bartholomew's Day story was cut shorter and the Jesus story was cut even more than that, being reduced to a few scattered scenes; the finished film gives considerably more attention to the modern-day "Mother and the Law" story and the Babylon story than the other two.

Some of the architecture from the film's Hall of Babylon scene, famously left standing for nearly five years after filming before it was demolished, has been recreated at the Hollywood & Highland Center in Los Angeles.

The film was a commercial failure in its time, owed to a combination of its high production costs and the fact that the United States entered World War I just months after its premiere, leading many to mistake the film as a denouncing of the global conflict. Today however, it's widely considered a classic of American cinema; the fact that Griffith bungled his pro-racism message so hard that it becomes easy to read the film as anti-racism probably helps.

According to Lillian Gish's memoir, Griffith performed Executive Meddling by reediting the film several times after its release, cutting even more from the French and Judean stories and adding more Babylon material after Griffith realized that the Babylon segment was the most popular. "The Fall of Babylon" and "The Mother and the Law" were eventually reissued as standalone features with additional scenes shot. It's unlikely that the original version of Intolerance will ever be restored since most of the footage edited out of the film after its initial release has been lost.

Tropes include:

  • Action Girl: The Mountain Girl in the Babylonian arc is a very early film example of this trope. She likes to eat onions and kill Persians, and she is clearly enjoying herself as she fires arrows from the battlements of Babylon. Constance Talmadge's performance is a strikingly modern one.
  • An Aesop: War is bad, intolerance is bad, and there's nothing wrong with drinking and dancing, dammit.
  • Anthology Film: Not a Hyperlink Story, as the four narratives don't connect, but an anthology film, with four distinct stories centered on the theme of intolerance. What made this film distinctive and ground-breaking was Griffith's decision to intercut the four narratives with each other, switching from one to another repeatedly, building to four tense climaxes breathlessly cutting back and forth as the film hurtles to its ending. This is still very uncommon. Cloud Atlas is an example of a modern film that uses a similar narrative structure.
  • Author Tract: Viewers will have little doubt over what D.W. Griffith thought about war, labor relations and strikebreaking, religious fundamentalism, or the Prohibition movement.
  • Berserk Button: "But touch my skirt and I'll scratch your eyes out!"
  • Better Manhandle the Murder Weapon: Naturally, The Boy has to pick the gun up and make sure to get his fingerprints all over it.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The 27 AD segment inevitably has this, and even then, the sweet part is downplayed. In the standalone version of the Fall of Babylon segment, the Downer Ending becomes this.
  • Break the Cutie
    • The Dear One. She and her father have to move away after cutbacks and a strike at the mill. She marries The Boy, who repents of his criminal ways for her, but he's framed, arrested, and jailed, leaving her to raise her child alone. The Moral Guardians choose to seize the child and give it to an orphanage. The Musketeer of the Slums (a gangster/pimp) takes advantage of the couple's struggle to get the child back and tries to rape her; he's shot dead by The Friendless One but the Boy is convicted of the crime and sentenced to hang...
    • The Friendless One is a broken cutie herself. After her boyfriend dies in the aforementioned mill strike, she too heads for the city...and becomes a prostitute via the Musketeer of the Slums, who abuses her.
  • Broken Aesop: Griffith created the film specifically to denounce critics of The Birth of a Nation as an overreach of political correctness, comparing the opposition of racism to the crucifixion of Christ among other things. However, the ambiguity at which he relayed his message made it easy to reinterpret it as being in support of the very viewpoint Griffith was against (largely because racism and bigotry in general are based heavily in intolerance), so much so that urban legend tends to misconstrue the film as Griffith apologizing for his earlier white nationalist propaganda piece.
  • The Cameo:
    • Lillian Gish, Griffith's regular heroine, appears here only as The Woman Rocking The Cradle in the bits linking the stories.
    • Besides starring as the Mountain Girl, Constance Talmadge appears briefly as Marguerite de Valois in the French story.
  • The Cavalry: In the modern story, The Cavalry arrives on time, saving The Boy from the gallows, but in two of the other stories...
  • The Cavalry Arrives Late: Prosper makes a mad dash back to Brown Eyes's house, but she and her family have already been put to the sword. The Mountain Girl, after having sneaked out behind the traitorous priests and discovering their plot, races back to Babylon on a chariot, but by the time she reaches Prince Belshazzar, the Persians have already entered the city via the open gate.
  • Censored Child Death: When the soldiers enter Brown Eyes' house, one has the little baby by one arm and one leg, apparently about to tear it in half. Mercifully, Griffith cuts away rather than showing this onscreen.
  • Children Are Innocent: Seemingly the motive when a Catholic prelate saves a frightened Protestant child from the massacre.
  • Department of Child Disservices: The Uplifters, not content with all the damage they've already done, decide the Dear One is an unfit mother and take her baby away. The baby is subsequently shown in a nursery, being completely neglected by the nurses in attendance.
    • Even worse in the standalone version of The Mother and the Law, where the baby dies and the Uplifters blame its death on the Dear One's supposed mistreatment before it was institutionalized.
  • Deus ex Machina: Pretty much literally, see Gainax Ending below.
  • Dies Wide Open: Prince Belshazzar, the Princess Beloved, and the Mountain Girl all die this way.
  • Downer Ending: Both the Fall of Babylon and St. Bartholomew's Day segments.
  • Dual Wielding: One of Prince Belshazzar's best soldiers is known for fighting with two swords at once. He lops off a few Persian heads atop the walls of Babylon.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: "The Mother and the Law" has this outcome.
  • Empathy Doll Shot: After the Uplifters forcibly remove the Dear One's baby, the camera focuses in on a single bootie left on the floor.
  • Epic Movie: The most expensive up to that time, costing $385,000, a third of which was spent of the Babylon sets.
  • Epic Tracking Shot: Griffith showed off his enormous Babylon set by mounting a camera on one of the siege towers, constructing an elevator, placing the tower on a flatcar, and getting off a shot in which the camera descends from 300 feet high to ground level. From a modern perspective, it is impressive. In 1916, when cameras were more or less nailed to the ground, it must have been shocking.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: King Charles IX refused to follow his mother's orders to attack his own people without proper reason.
  • Fanservice: The Love Temple in Babylon contains the prince's harem girls, who lounge around in see-through gowns. A nude woman is shown splashing about in a pool. And a woman can be seen spreading her knees apart and exposing herself for the camera. This was in 1916.
  • Final Battle: The climax of the Fall of Babylon.
  • Flat Character: Nearly everyone from the Babylonian segment (aside from the Mountain Girl) is pretty one-note.
  • Focus Group Ending: Griffith pioneered this, going on road shows with the film, quizzing audience members, and re-cutting the movie. This is what led to the Jesus segments getting mostly cut, and to the happier ending attached to the re-release of "The Fall of Babylon".
  • For Doom the Bell Tolls: The tolling of church bells is the signal to start the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre.
  • Follow That Car: Well, it's a silent movie, but the Friendless One grabs a cabbie's attention and points at another cab that is trundling away with the Dear One and the Kindly Officer inside.
  • Freudian Excuse: Mary Jenkins in "The Mother and the Law" is a spinster. She joins the Moral Guardians because cracking down on the "decadent" pursuits of the younger generation is a way to deny them the happiness she can't enjoy.
  • Gainax Ending: After the modern story ends and all four stories are tied up, Griffith abandons all of his narratives for an ending that comes out of nowhere. A World War I battle scene is shown, as is The Boy's prison, with the prisoners inside reaching out to the walls. A choir of angels descends from the heavens. All the soldiers stop fighting. The prison disappears, replaced by a field of flowers, with flowers overgrowing the abandoned artillery pieces. The final shot is of happy children playing in the fields.
    "And perfect love shall bring perfect peace forever more."
  • Good Smoking, Evil Smoking: The Boy has a cigarette clamped in his mouth when he's working for the Musketeer of the Slums as a hoodlum. He doesn't have one before that, and he never has one after, once the love of the Dear One has redeemed him.
  • Gorn: The battle scenes are pretty gory for 1916, with heads getting whacked off, soldiers getting speared, torsos being riddled with arrows, etc.
  • Holier Than Thou: The Pharisees pray very publicly and ostentatiously, thanking God that they are better than other men.
  • Hypocrite: Catherine de Medici. Good lord, Catherine de Medici. She claimed that the Huguenots were ruthless savages and were against religion, but she herself proved to be just as nasty as she says they are as she also ignored the religion and sent mercenaries to slaughter their entire race, even though some of them were living perfectly normal lives. Not to mention she pleasantly witness the murders without any regrets.
    • The Pharisees from the Judean Story can also qualify, since they're praying to demand that God bring mercy on them, even though their actions led to the Crucifixion of Jesus.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: The Dear One and Brown Eyes are typical virginal Griffith heroines, saving themselves until marriage, sweet and innocent. Part of what makes the Mountain Girl so interesting is how thoroughly she avoids this trope.
  • Irony: A meta example. As stated above, a film about issues related to intolerance was made because the director didn't realize that his vehemently racist (even for the time) film was, in fact, heavily intolerant.
  • Just in Time: The Boy is saved from the gallows by a Last-Minute Reprieve just moments before the trapdoor is to drop.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • None of the bad guys—Jenkins, the Uplifters, the treacherous Babylonian priest, King Cyrus, King Charles IX, Catherine de Medici, the Pharisees—get any kind of comeuppance. Catherine is seen striding through the corpse-strewn streets with a look of satisfaction on her face.
    • Averted with the Musketeer of the Slums who is shot by the Friendless One and dies, only for the Boy to get accused and sentenced to hanging.
  • Killed Offscreen: We never get to see The Dear One's father die.
  • Kill the Cutie: Brown Eyes in the French story.
  • Lawful Stupid: After a guard at the prison frantically rushes into the execution chamber with word of a pardon, the warden checks his watch, apparently decides that the deadline has already passed, and proceeds with the hanging. The Boy's life isn't saved until the Dear One and the Kindly Officer burst in with the Governor in tow.
  • Last-Minute Reprieve: The climax of "The Mother and the Law" hinges on The Dear One and those helping her getting this for The Boy, lest he die on the gallows.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: Reinforcing the Mirroring Factions theme—a sign saying "The Same Today As Yesterday" is clearly visible as the soldiers fire on the striking workers.
  • Love Redeems: The Boy turns to crime to survive in the big city, but his love for The Dear One triggers a redemption.
  • Missing Mom: The Dear One, The Boy, Brown Eyes, none of them have moms.
  • Moral Guardians: The villains in each story, in one form or another. The "Uplifters" in the modern story take away the bars and dance halls that are the workers' comfort after hours. The Pharisees demand that everyone else stop moving while they pray, and are eager to stone the woman who committed adultery.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: King Charles IX seems to suffer from this after the church bells signaling the start of the massacre begin to ring.
  • Name Drop: Every time someone uses the word 'intolerance', 'intolerant', etc.
  • Nameless Narrative: Aside from historical figures, most of the characters don't have names; they are meant to be emblematic of human types.
  • Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot: Again, one of the first examples in cinema.
  • Off with His Head!: Belshazzar's chief bodyguard lops a Persian's head off. For 1916, the effect is pretty impressive.
  • One-Word Title: Intolerance.
  • The Purge: The violent St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, which crushed Protestantism in France.
  • The Quisling: The high priest of Bal, outraged that Belshazzar worships Ishtar and allows freedom of religion in Babylon, opens the gates and delivers the city to Cyrus and the Persians.
  • Re-Cut:
    • "The Mother and the Law" and "The Fall of Babylon" were released as feature films with new scenes added. The Mountain Girl got a happier ending in which she leaves Babylon in the company of the Rhapsode.
    • Due to this film's public domain status, there are several different versions available on home video or the internet. The 1991 Image Entertainment Laserdisc, now out of print, included a Deleted Scene in which the Dear One and the Boy are reunited with their baby.
  • Resignations Not Accepted: The Musketeer will not have it when the Boy tries to quit the criminal life.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: The military assault on striking workers was inspired by the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, in which 19 people (including 11 women and two children) were killed at a Colorado mine owned by John D. Rockefeller. The parallel between Jenkins the mill owner and Rockefeller is made even clearer when Jenkins stops and picks up a coin. This was an anecdote that Rockefeller liked to tell about the beginning of his business career.
  • Scenery Porn: The colossal sets for the Fall of Babylon story. Seriously, look at that set! The Hollywood and Highland shopping center, located at that street corner in Hollywood next to the Kodak/Dolby Theatre, was partially inspired by Griffith's set.
  • Sissy Villain: The prince in the French story, who is described as "feminine" and is fully on board with the massacre of Protestants.
  • Streetwalker:
    • One is visible in the slum that the mill workers have relocated to. The Dear One, who is both very innocent and kind of stupid, gets the idea to strut down the sidewalk like the streetwalker does so people will like her.
    • Oddly enough, the Mountain Girl does something similar, but only in the standalone version of the Babylonian story.
  • Sympathetic P.O.V.: In the Fall of Babylon story, the Babylonians are the good guys. Culturally, thanks to its depiction in the Bible, ancient Babylon tends to be remembered as a Wretched Hive that was justly destroyed for its transgressions; the film depicts it as a progressive civilization that allowed religious freedom.
  • Threads of Fate: Behind the Woman Rocking the Cradle, the Fates can be seen spinning, measuring, and cutting their threads, symbolizing how people live and die but human existence is eternal.
  • Together in Death:
    • Prosper is hit by a hail of bullets while carrying Brown Eyes' corpse. He falls down and dies on top of her.
    • Prince Belshazzar and the Princess Beloved kill themselves together.
  • Unwitting Pawn: The Rhapsode has no idea that he is taking the high priest to a treasonous meeting with the Persians.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • The Dear One and The Boy got their baby back, right? Right?
    • What happens to The Friendless One after she confesses to shooting The Musketeer of the Slums?
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Alluded to in the linking segments. Sitting behind Lillian Gish and the cradle are the three Fates, spinning, measuring, and cutting the thread of life.