In her autobiography, Lillian Gish details the far-reaching research that went into Intolerance. Although her role was brief, she was very involved in the film and frequently discussed characters with Griffith. She felt “too young and unworldly” to understand Catherine de Medici, so she asked the director about the best interpretation. Griffith told Gish: “Don’t judge. . . . Always remember this, Miss Lillian, circumstances make people what they are. Everyone is capable of the lowest and the highest. The same potentialities are in us all—only circumstances make the difference.”
A major theme in earlier war melodramas involves the choice between life in the world of heroes and battlefields and life in the cloister, a world of sacrifice and prayer. The various adaptations of Francis Marion Crawford’s immensely popular 1909 romance The White Sister suggest how important this theme was in American films of the twenties and thirties. Catholic mystic Henry King directed Lillian Gish in the best known, most widely acclaimed version of The White Sister, which was released at the peak of America’s disillusionment with World War I in 1923.