Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916)

It is often said that Intolerance:  Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages was not well-received at the time, because it was over three hours long, and because it jumped back and forth among four different stories from four different time periods. Well, what was true then is still true today. The only way this movie deserves praise is if we handicap it for when it was made, or because we feel obliged to show deference to D.W. Griffith, who directed it.

In watching this movie, it soon becomes clear that the intolerance referred to in the title is religious in nature, for in each of the four stories, it is religion that causes all the suffering (actually, in the fourth story, it is more a matter of women becoming morally righteous as they age and lose their looks). Oddly enough, after showing how much misery is caused by religion (or moral righteousness) for over two thousand years, at the end of the movie, the heavens open up and God’s grace is shed on earth, right in the middle of a war, causing everyone to stop fighting and love one another. So, I guess religion is bad, but God is good. Except, you have to wonder, What was God waiting for? If he was going to intervene and stop all the religious killing, he could have done that a long time ago.

In three of the stories, good people die, but in the fourth story, set in modern times, the innocent man about to be hanged is saved by a melodramatic, last-minute confession from the real murderer. The reason for the difference is inexplicable. There is no indication that progress has been made over the centuries, for religious or moral intolerance is depicted as being just as prevalent today as in the past. If the innocent man had been hanged, that would at least have provided artistic unity for the four stories. As it is, the man’s reprieve is capricious. D.W. Griffith probably figured the audience deserved at least one happy ending, especially since no one was going to believe that business about God’s belated intervention in the middle of a war.

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