One of these days I will run out of reasons to refer to my dissertation, “The Costumed Catholic: Catholics, Whiteness, and the Movies, 1928-1973.” For now, here is more context. When looking at the release year for today’s film, Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages (1916, and henceforth just Intolerance because I do not feel like typing out the subtitle every time), you might be puzzled. My dissertation says it begins with 1928, hence 1916 would be outside my purview. Well, again, context is everything. As such, no introduction to this film would be complete without mentioning its director, D. W. Griffith. You have indirectly heard of him, possibly, if you have heard of the Hollywood production company United Artists. Griffith, along with silent film giants Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford founded it in 1919. I would posit that is his most lasting impact on film. As for his films, he has two major ones, each unwatchable but for different reasons. His most famous one is Birth of a Nation (1915), which earns this distinction because if glorifies the Ku Klux Klan. The other is today’s, Intolerance, and it is utterly boring. The only reason to see it is for the incredible sets for the Babylonian portions of the movie. Please keep the word “portions” in mind as we go forward.
The first thing to know about Intolerance is that there are four different stories going on at different points in history. The only thing that links them is that they each feature some form of the title word on a societal level. This makes it over three hours long. If you ever have the misfortune of sitting through the whole thing (as I have a couple times), it will feel like three months. Do not worry, I am not going to describe each part. Even I have my limits. There are the aforementioned Babylonian scenes, with the city being invaded by the Persians. Again, these are the only worthwhile aspects of the film, yet still only sections of it. Griffith constructed massive sets for this segment, including full scale portions of the fortifications, hired thousands of extras, and had some neat early special effects. The best is when you see a dummy Persian warrior swing a sword at its Babylonian enemy. The Babylonian counterpart ducks, straightens, and then slices off the fake head. To a modern audience it looks fake, but in 1916 it must have seemed pretty shocking. Okay, I have spent enough time here. The second part features snippets from the life of Jesus. As an avowed Catholic film reviewer, you might be led to think that this would be the aspect that would lead me to this movie. It is a fair supposition, but these scenes are ultimately frustrating because the least amount of time is spent on this period. At any rate, it reinforces the theme mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph, which leads to Jesus being Crucified. A third section of the movie focuses on the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, which took place in France in 1572. It features the death of many French Huguenots, the main group French protestants, at the hands of the ruling Catholics. Now, this Catholic is not going to try to deny that this event happened. It was awful, and not the best moment in the history of the Church. I would also emphasize that this is not something the Church would tolerate today, something the film does not do. It is ironic that Griffith would make a movie about a subject such as this when, in real life, he was as intolerant a person one could find, including being an anti-Catholic.
You may note so far with this review of Intolerance that I have not spent a lot of time discussing plot. That is because I wanted to save it for the longest part of the film, which is contemporary to the period in which it is made. It focuses on a character known as The Dear One (Mae Marsh). When a strike at the suburban factory where she lived a simple life forces her family to move to the city, her life begins to go downhill. Another person displaced by the strike and subsequent firing of all the workers is The Boy (Robert Harron), and he ends up in the same mean circumstances. While the eternally optimistic Dear One tries to make the best of it in the slums while her father (Fred Turner) literally works himself to death, The Boy turns to a life a crime. He falls in with the so-called Musketeer of the Slums (Walter Long), and has a scandalous affair with woman going by the name of The Friendless One (Miriam Cooper). It is not long, though, before The Boy meets The Dear One. Seeing her piety (she resists his rather brutish initial advances) he eventually cleans up his act and they get married. Unfortunately, The Musketeer of the Slums will not let The Boy go so easily, and frames his former underling for a crime. During his time in prison, The Dear One has a child, but she is quite excited for her husband’s release. Alas, their prospects of being a family are dashed once more when The Boy is mistakenly arrested for the murder of The Musketeer of the Slums. What makes matters worse is when the so-called moral Uplifters find The Dear One alone with her baby, decide she is an unfit mother, and summarily takes the child. Things look bleak until The Kindly Police Officer (Tom Wilson) discovers that it had been the jilted lover, The Friendless One, who had killed the Musketeer of the Slums. The Dear One and The Kindly Police Officer then have a mad scramble to track down The Governor (Ralph Lewis) before The Boy is executed.
Intolerance ends with some kind of anti-incarceration, anti-war message, that are kind of confusing. As you can see if you have made it thus far, the question that has probably arisen in your mind is, my gosh, how did you make it through this film once, let alone a few times. All I can really say in answer is dissertation. It helps explain the anti-Catholicism in American culture that would influence later acts undertaken by Catholics in Hollywood. The inclusion of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre is only part of the puzzle. With the “Modern Story,” Griffith does show you anti-Catholicism present in early twentieth century American society. Those Uplifters he portrays are a group of people we know today as progressives. They thought they had a monopoly on what it meant to be American, and Catholics had been decidedly not that since this country’s founding. This emboldened them to go into the parts of the city where Catholics lived, as you see in the movie, and behave as they did. In their eyes, taking a child from such a person was justified, particularly when they find The Dear One having a small glass of beer with her simple sandwich for a meal. I will also credit Griffith for having a priest (A. W. McClure) for The Boy. This is about as far as I am willing to go, and Griffith swings back into the specific Catholic bashing when you see a statue of the Virgin Mary obliterated by gun fire.
If nothing else, at least now you know why I sat through Intolerance more than once. It is a shame that I cannot more highly recommend the film given its title. We need to be aware of these kinds of attitudes, though little of what we see from this over a century old motion picture is applicable today in a specific sense.