Intolerance: Love's Struggle Through the Ages (1916)
Visually, the movie is certainly a mixture of wondrous beauty and insipid banality. Ancient Babylon has been brought to life as an amazing city of sheer fantasy. Sixteenth Century Paris is well realized as well, although it is never breathtaking. The other sets are, however, of indifferent quality. Similarly, some of the film's costumes are impressive and beautiful, but most are forgettable. A number of those worn during the Babylonian story are strange and exotic, and several worn in the French story are elegant and attractive. Nevertheless, many of the costumes used in both these tales, as well as the majority of those worn in the other two narratives, are completely uninspired.
The stories, which all, except for that of Jesus, revolve around a couple, a man and a woman, who are separated because of the narrow-mindedness and hypocrisy of moral or religious zealots, are sanctimonious, overdone, and melodramatic. That set in the Twentieth Century, for example, concerns the daughter of a factory worker who marries a young man with a troubled past and suffers as a result of the bigotry of those who consider themselves exemplars of morality. After the man is falsely convicted of a crime and sent to prison, the couple's child is taken away from the mother. Even when the woman's husband is released, the family's troubles do not end. The man is again wrongly accused of a crime, for which, this time, he is not only convicted but is sentenced to be hanged. The preaching story is so steeped in heavy-handed sentimentality that it is never emotionally satisfying.
The best of the stories is that set in ancient Babylon, which is concerned with a mountain girl loyal to her king, who has aided her several times she has found herself in trouble. When, in this tale, religious strife and jealousy lead some of the king's subjects to betray him to the invading Persians, the faithful and spirited young heroine fights valiantly to save his kingdom. The themes of intolerance and religious zealotry are most diluted here, and the story is, perhaps, the most engaging because it does not constantly sermonize.
Unfortunately, Griffith does repeatedly preach to the viewer in the other narratives, reminding him how intolerance is hurtful and how it has caused all the suffering depicted in the film. As a result of these incessant didactic intrusions, the emotive impact of much of the movie is diminished. Instead of relishing a feeling of sorrow focused on the various characters whose troubles are being depicted, the viewer is forced into an awareness that he is supposed to be learning something. Griffith clearly intends that any appreciation of the film's inherent beauty should merely support its didactic content. Instead of a work of art, he has created a lecture.
Intolerance is well worth seeing. While the film is deeply flawed, it includes so many wonderful visual elements that watching it is an enjoyable and rewarding experience.
Review by Keith Allen
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