Intolerance is a 1916 epic silent film directed by D. W. Griffith. Subtitles include Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages and A Sun-Play of the Ages.
Regarded as one of the great masterpieces of the silent era (though it received mixed reviews at the time), the three-and-a-half-hour epic intercuts four parallel storylines, each separated by several centuries: a contemporary melodrama of crime and redemption, a Judean story: Christ's mission and death, a French story: the events surrounding the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of 1572, and a Babylonian story: the fall of the Babylonian Empire to Persia in 539 BC. Each story had its own distinctive color tint in the original print, but not in the currently available versions. The scenes are linked by shots of a figure representing Eternal Motherhood, rocking a cradle.
Intolerance was made partly in response to criticism of Griffith's previous film, The Birth of a Nation (1915), which was criticized by the NAACP and other groups as perpetuating racial stereotypes and glorifying the Ku Klux Klan. It was not, however, an apology, as Griffith felt he had nothing to apologize for; in numerous interviews, Griffith made clear that the film's title and overriding themes were meant as a response to those who, he felt, had been intolerant of him in condemning The Birth of a Nation. In the years following its release, Intolerance would strongly influence European film movements. In 1989, it was one of the first films to be selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
The film consists of four distinct, but parallel, stories—intercut with increasing frequency as the film builds to a climax—that demonstrate humankind's persistent intolerance throughout the ages. The timeline covers approximately 2,500 years.
The ancient "Babylonian" story (539 BC) depicts the conflict between Prince Belshazzar of Babylon and Cyrus the Great of Persia. The fall of Babylon is a result of intolerance arising from a conflict between devotees of two rival Babylonian gods—Bel-Marduk and Ishtar. The Biblical "Judean" story (c. AD 27) recounts how—after the Wedding at Cana and the Woman Taken in Adultery—intolerance led to the Crucifixion of Jesus. This sequence is the shortest of the four. The Renaissance "French" story (1572) tells of the religious intolerance that led to the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of Protestant Huguenots fomented by Catholic royals. The American "Modern" story (c. 1914) demonstrates how crime, moral puritanism, and conflicts between ruthless capitalists and striking workers help ruin the lives of marginal Americans. To get more money for his spinster sister's charities, a mill owner orders a 10% pay cut to his workers' wages. An ensuing workers' strike is crushed and The Boy and The Dear One make their way to another city; she lives in poverty and he turns to crime. After they marry, he tries to break free of crime but is framed for theft by his ex-boss. While he is in prison, his wife must endure their child being taken away by the same "moral uplift society" that instigated the strike. Upon his release from prison, he discovers his ex-boss attempting to rape his wife. A struggle begins and in the confusion the girlfriend of the boss shoots and kills the boss. She escapes and The Boy is convicted and sentenced to the gallows. A kindly policeman helps The Dear One find the real killer and together they try to reach the Governor in time so her reformed husband will not be hanged. Breaks between differing time periods are marked by the symbolic image of a mother rocking a cradle, representing the passing of generations. The film simultaneously cross-cuts back and forth and interweaves the segments over great gaps of space and time, with over 50 transitions between the segments. One of the unusual characteristics of the film is that many of the characters do not have names. Griffith wished them to be emblematic of human types. Thus, the central female character in the modern story is called The Dear One. Her young husband is called The Boy, and the leader of the local Mafia is called The Musketeer of the Slums. Critics and film theorists maintain that these names reveal Griffith's sentimentalism, which was already hinted at in The Birth of a Nation, with names such as The Little Colonel.