A series of short dramas, recounting instances of intolerance and abuse of power through the ages. [ Intolerance credits: Dir: D.W. Griffith/ Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh/ 177 min/ Drama-SILENT/ Social Tolerance]
“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 the ages, have battled against love and charity.” With that introduction begins this landmark silent film.
The four stories depicted here are wide-ranging. In the first, a group of modern busybodies start a “reform movement” in which they create laws to ban dancing, drinking, and other amusements. They end up destroying the lives of everyone they touch. In the second, in old Jerusalem, Jesus, “the greatest enemy of intolerance,” defends a woman convicted of adultery by telling those who are without sin to cast the first stone. In the third, religious intolerance in sixteenth century Paris leads to the extermination of the Huguenots. In the fourth, in old Babylon, we see the suffering caused when abuse of power leads to unnecessary war and bloodshed.
In each of these minimelodramas, intolerance and meddling lead inevitably to misery. That’s the moral here, and it’s one that libertarians will certainly appreciate. On the downside, the film’s only capitalist is portrayed in a somewhat Dickensian light. It’s not a major point, just something to which libertarians will be sensitive.
It’s ironic that this film against intolerance, made in 1916, preceded the most intolerant and bloodiest century ever, a century that saw Stalin’s mass executions, the Holocaust, the Killing Fields of Asia, and many other experiments in socialism. Too bad more people didn’t take this film’s message to heart.
It’s a tremendous artistic achievement, with wonderfully elaborate sets, plenty of action, and a cast of hundreds if not thousands. Most critics give it their highest rating. Its lower “entertainment value” rating here reflects modern tastes, rather than timeless critical standards. Accustomed as we are to color talkies, most of us require some stamina to sit through a three-hour, black-and-white silent film, with all due respect to the talented film pioneers who made it. This is the oldest libertarian film of which this reviewer is aware.