In an early scene of D.W. Griffith’s film Intolerance, we see the leader of “The vestal virgins of Uplift” tell Mary Jenkins, the bitter and aging sister of a wealthy industrialist, that “We must have laws to make people good.” She proceeds to convince Ms. Jenkins to have her brother cut wages in his factory by 10% in order to finance a donation to the uplifters. They’re overjoyed as they use the money to shut down the dance halls and bars that the people they’re punitively protecting frequent. Pluck any human from any point in history, and they’d recognize a familiar scene. We’ve all watched people pursue their own selfish need for power under the guise of the common good. They convince those around them with a serpentine smile that they’re the good guys. They convince themselves that they’re the righteous ones, doing the work that no one else will.

Intolerance, in Griffith’s own words, follows four stories which show how “hatred and intolerance, through all the ages, have battled against love and charity.” Indeed, throughout the film, we see these eternal human forces clashing time and time again. In ancient Babylon, it’s the High Priest of Bel who wants to destroy the tolerant regime of Belshazzar to maintain his power. In early 20th century America, it’s Mary Jenkins and her gang who wants to remove joy from the lives of working class families because she’s bitter about her own cheerless life. By drawing analogues between these stories along with the crucifixion of Jesus and religious persecution in 16th century France, Griffith points to many indelible features of human nature. Chief among them is the tendency for power-hungry individuals to pervert venerable institutions to wipe out the opposition.

It’s telling that, in all four stories, Griffith sets two groups in opposition to one another. On the one hand, we are given a power hungry, and often insecure, individual or group, who actively tries to wipe out an opposing way of life by appealing to their own righteousness. Catherine de Medici undoubtedly sees herself as a guardian of the Catholic faith as she consolidates her power and orders the massacre of the protestant opposition. The High Priest of Bel must think of himself as a defender of the people against perversion by the rival god, Ishtar, even as he betrays his own king and causes the fall of Babylon. On the other hand, we’re shown a rabble of individuals each trying to live their own lives as best they can. The Dear One in the modern era is just trying to raise a loving family with The Boy. The Mountain Girl in Babylon doesn’t quite fit into the mainstream of society, but strives to do her best. In these cases, and several others, Griffith portrays these individuals as being pushed and prodded by a supposedly pious authority until they are forced to take action to protect a loved one.

But how does this repeated dichotomy relate to intolerance, which is, after all, the title of the film? What these four stories illustrate is a conviction that intolerance for other ways of life is the vehicle through which the tyrannical ruthlessly consolidate power. Griffith portray a world in which people hijack existing moral institutions, particularly religion, as a way of consolidating power while looking morally superior. Intolerance for views other than those espoused by their institution simultaneously allows these individuals to feel as though they’re taking the moral high ground and convince others to silence the opposition on their behalf. These acts of intolerance often incite violence which, in turn, disproportionately impact people who embody ‘love and charity’ in their personal lives, even though they are often without any kind of explicit social status.

So what is Griffith’s prognosis? Are we doomed to keep repeating this cycle of intolerance and violence? Just by looking at the four stories it’s hard to tell. Three of the segments [Ancient Babylon, The Story of Jesus, The Massacre of St. Bartholomew] end with the triumph of the forces of intolerance. Only the segment which takes place in the modern age ends in a triumph against these forces. It’s possible that by having the most hopeful outcome as the most modern one, he is explicitly stating that we’ve made some progress towards creating a more tolerant world in the modern age. On the other hand, it could just be the outcome of that particular story. It’s only with the epilogue that Griffith reveals his verdict on the future course of history. As a raging battle comes to a sudden halt and angels descend from the heavens, Griffith makes it clear that, only with the intervention of God can we leave this cycle of violence and intolerance.

With this ending, the viewer is left with a conundrum. On the one hand, Griffith holds out hope that this cycle of intolerance and abuse will end thanks to the grace of a forgiving Christian God. At some point in the future, we will live in a world where “Instead of prison walls – Bloom flowery fields.” On the other hand, this reflects a deep pessimism regarding the nature of history. Humanity if left on its own is doomed to repeat the unending battle between intolerance and love. Much blood will be shed, and no lessons will be learned.

Looking outside as I write this, the sky is blue and people are going about their business in a billion different ways. Mothers walk by with babies in strollers and a couple sits in the sun sipping coffee. I want to believe that we’ve learned from our mistakes, and that humanity as a whole is slowly moving past it’s self-destructive intolerance into an era of peace. It’s painful to know that places like Syria and Afghanistan exist where war rages on, driven forward by unbridled self-interest sold to the populace as a righteous and moral imperative. Closer to home, it’s hard to acknowledge that in our own gleaming office towers and halls of government, there’s perpetual scheming about ways to manipulate others solely for their personal gain. Perhaps I’m just lucky to live in a bubble of peace, stability, and tolerance that could collapse at any moment. I don’t want to live in the world of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, but with a heavy heart, I have to admit that I do.