Widely regarded as one of the great masterpieces of the silent era, as well as one of the first art films, the three-and-a-half-hour epic intercuts four parallel storylines, each separated by several centuries: (1) a contemporary melodrama of crime and redemption, (2) a Judean story: Christ's mission and death, (3) a French story: the events surrounding the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of 1572, and (4) a Babylonian story: the fall of the Babylonian Empire to Persia in 539 BC. Each story had its own distinctive color tint in the original print. The scenes are linked by shots of a figure representing Eternal Motherhood, rocking a cradle.
This complex film consists of four distinct, but parallel, stories—intercut with increasing frequency as the film builds to a climax—that demonstrate mankind's persistent intolerance throughout the ages. The film sets up moral and psychological connections among the different stories. The timeline covers approximately 2,500 years.
- The ancient "Babylonian" story (539 BC) depicts the conflict between Prince Belshazzar of Babylon and Cyrus the Great of Persia. The fall of Babylon is a result of intolerance arising from a conflict between devotees of two rival Babylonian gods—Bel-Marduk and Ishtar.
- The Biblical "Judean" story (c. AD 27) recounts how—after the Wedding at Cana and the Woman Taken in Adultery—intolerance led to the Crucifixion of Jesus. This sequence is the shortest of the four.
- The Renaissance "French" story (1572) tells of the religious intolerance that led to the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of Protestant Huguenots fomented by Catholic royals.
- The American "Modern" story (c. 1914) demonstrates how crime, moral puritanism, and conflicts between ruthless capitalists and striking workers help ruin the lives of marginal Americans. To get more money for his spinster sister's charities, a mill owner orders a 10% pay cut to his workers' wages. An ensuing workers' strike is crushed and The Boy and The Dear One make their way to another city; she lives in poverty and he turns to crime. After they marry, he tries to break free of crime but is framed for theft by his ex-boss. While he is in prison, his wife must endure their child being taken away by the same "moral uplift society" that instigated the strike. Upon his release from prison, he discovers his ex-boss attempting to rape his wife. A struggle begins and in the confusion the girlfriend of the boss shoots and kills the boss. She escapes and The Boy is convicted and sentenced to the gallows. A kindly policeman helps The Dear One find the real killer and together they try to reach the Governor in time so her reformed husband will not be hanged.
Breaks between the differing time periods are marked by the symbolic image of a mother rocking a cradle, representing the passing of generations. The film simultaneously cross-cuts back and forth and interweaves the segments over great gaps of space and time, with over 50 transitions between the segments. One of the unusual characteristics of the film is that many of the characters do not have names. Griffith wished them to be emblematic of human types. Thus, the central female character in the modern story is called The Dear One. Her young husband is called The Boy, and the leader of the local Mafia is called The Musketeer of the Slums. Critics and film theorists maintain that these names reveal Griffith's sentimentalism, which was already hinted at in The Birth of a Nation, with names such as The Little Colonel.Lillian Gish as The Eternal Motherhood
The American "Modern" storyMae Marsh as The Dear One
Robert Harron as The Boy, a worker at Jenkins Mill
Fred Turner as The Dear One's father, a worker at the Jenkins Mill
Miriam Cooper as The Friendless One, former neighbor of the Boy and Dear One
Walter Long as Musketeer of the Slums
Tom Wilson as The Kindly Officer/Heart
Vera Lewis as Miss Mary T. Jenkins
Sam De Grasse as Mr. Arthur Jenkins, mill boss
Lloyd Ingraham as The Judge
Ralph Lewis as The Governor
A. W. McClure as Prison Father Fathley
Max Davidson as tenement neighbor of Dear One
Renaissance "French" story (1572)Margery Wilson as Brown Eyes
Eugene Pallette as Prosper Latour
Spottiswoode Aitken as Brown Eyes' father
Ruth Handforth as Brown Eyes' mother
Allan Sears as The Mercenary Soldier
Josephine Crowell as Catherine de Medici, the Queen-mother
Frank Bennett (actor) as Charles IX of France
Maxfield Stanley as Prince Henry of France
Joseph Henabery as Admiral Coligny
Constance Talmadge as Princess Marguerite of Valois (first role in film)
W. E. Lawrence as Henry of Navarre
Ancient "Babylonian" storyConstance Talmadge as The Mountain Girl (second role in film)
Elmer Clifton as The Rhapsode, a warrior-singer
Alfred Paget as Prince Belshazzar
Seena Owen as The Princess Beloved, favorite of Belshazzar
Tully Marshall as High Priest of Bel-Marduk
George Siegmann as Cyrus the Great
Carl Stockdale as King Nabonidus, father of Belshazzar
Elmo Lincoln as The Mighty Man of Valor, guard to Belshazzar
Frank Brownlee as The Mountain Girl's brother
The Ruth St. Denis Dancers as Dancing girls
The Biblical "Judean" storyHoward Gaye as The Nazarene
Lillian Langdon as Mary, the Mother
Bessie Love as The Bride
George Walsh as The Bridegroom
Cameo appearances/small roles
Intolerance was a colossal undertaking featuring monumental sets, lavish period costumes, and more than 3,000 extras. Griffith began shooting the film with the Modern Story (originally titled "The Mother and the Law"), whose planning predated the great commercial success of The Birth of a Nation, which had made $48 million, about $688 million in 2017. He then greatly expanded it to include the other three parallel stories under the theme of intolerance.
Actual costs to produce Intolerance are unknown, but best estimates are close to $2.5 million (about $47 million in 2017), an astronomical sum in 1916. A third of the cost went into making the Babylonian segments of the film. The film was by far the most expensive one made up to that time. When it became a flop at the box-office, the burden was so great that in 1918 the Triangle Film Corporation had to be put up for sale.
Griffith mostly financed the film, which contributed to his financial ruin for the rest of his life.
Intolerance was met with an enthusiastic reception from film critics upon its premiere. Scholar Frank Beaver argues that "Griffith’s intended message in Intolerance was not lost on reviewers", noting that in The San Francisco Bulletin a contemporary critic declared, "Griffith’s film comes powerfully to strengthen the hand of the believers in love." Although Intolerance was a commercial failure upon its initial release, it has since received very positive reviews and later gained popularity. It has been called "the only film fugue". Theodore Huff, one of the leading film critics of the first half of the 20th century, believed that it was the only motion picture worthy of taking its place alongside Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings, etc., as a separate and central artistic contribution.
Intolerance was shown out of competition at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival. In 1989, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant", going in during the first year of voting. In 2007, AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) ranked Intolerance as the 49th best American film of all time. The film also holds a 96% approval rating on the aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes.
Critic Armond White considers Intolerance the greatest film ever made, writing, "A century later we are as close to its subject as we are distant from its art." Praise for the work is not unanimous, however. David Thomson argued that the film's impact is weakened by its "self-destructive frenzy":
The cross-cutting, self-interrupting format is wearisome ... The sheer pretension is a roadblock, and one longs for the "Modern Story" to hold the screen ... [That story] is still very exciting in terms of its cross-cutting in the attempt to save the boy from the gallows. This episode is what Griffith did best: brilliant, modern suspense, geared up to rapidity—whenever Griffith let himself slow down he was yielding to bathos ... Anyone concerned with film history has to see Intolerance, and pass on.
Intolerance and its unorthodox editing were enormously influential, particularly among European and Soviet filmmakers. Many of the numerous assistant directors Griffith employed in making the film—Erich von Stroheim, Tod Browning, Woody Van Dyke—went on to become important and noted Hollywood directors in subsequent years.
The film was parodied by Buster Keaton in Three Ages (1923).
A replica of an archway and elephant sculptures from the Babylon segment of the film serve as an important architectural element of the Hollywood and Highland shopping center in Hollywood, Los Angeles (built in 2001).
The set of Intolerance was a key location in the video game L.A. Noire.
Intolerance is now in the public domain. There are currently four major versions of the film in circulation.
- The Killiam Shows Version – Taken from a third-generation 16 millimeter print, this version contains an organ score by Gaylord Carter. Running approximately 176 minutes, it is the version that has been the most widely seen in recent years. It has been released on LaserDisc and DVD by Image Entertainment and is the most complete version currently available on home video, if not the longest.
- The Official Thames Silents Restoration – In 1989 this film was given a formal restoration by film preservationists Kevin Brownlow and David Gill. This version, also running 177 minutes, was prepared by Thames Television from original 35 millimeter material, and its tones and tints were restored per Griffith's original intent. It also has a digitally recorded orchestral score by Carl Davis. It was released on VHS in the U.S. briefly around 1989–1990 by HBO Video, then went out of print. This version is part of the Rohauer Collection. The Rohauer company worked in association with Thames on the restoration. It was given a further digital restoration by Cohen Media Group (which currently serves as keeper of the Rohauer library, and is the copyright holder on this restored version), and was reissued to select theatres, as well as on DVD and Blu-ray, in 2013. While not as complete as the Killiam Shows Version, this print contains footage not found on that particular print.
- The Kino Version – Pieced together in 2002 by Kino International, this version, taken from 35 millimeter material, is transferred at a slower frame rate than the Killiam Shows and Rohauer prints, resulting in a longer running time of 197 minutes. It contains a synthetic orchestral score by Joseph Turrin. An alternative "happy ending" to the "Fall of Babylon" sequence, showing the Mountain Girl surviving and re-united with the Rhapsode, is included on the DVD as a supplement. This version is less complete than the Killiam Shows and Rohauer prints.
- The Restored Digital Cinema Version – Restoration conducted by ZZ Productions in collaboration with the Danish Film Institute and Arte France of the version shown on April 7, 1917 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London. This version runs approximately 177 minutes and premiered August 29, 2007 at the Venice Film Festival and on October 4 on arte.
There are other budget/public domain video and digital video disc versions of this film released by different companies, each with varying degrees of picture quality depending on the source that was used. Most are of poor picture quality, but even the restored 35 millimeter versions exhibit considerable film damage.
The Internet Movie Database lists the standard running time as 163 minutes, which is the running length of the DVD released by "Public Domain Flicks". The Delta DVD released in Region 1 as Intolerance: A Sun Play of the Ages and in Region 2 as Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages clocks in at 167 minutes. The version available for free viewing on the Internet Movie Archive is the Killiam restoration.
Cameraman Karl Brown remembered a scene with the various members of the Babylonian harem that featured full frontal nudity. He was barred from the set that day, apparently because he was so young. While there are several shots of slaves and harem girls throughout the film (which were shot by another director without Griffith's involvement), the scene that Brown describes is not in any surviving versions.
It is also known that a major segment of the Renaissance "French" story, involving the attempted assassination of the Admiral Coligny, was cut before the film's release.
Film historian Kevin Brownlow has written that, when Griffith re-released "The Modern Story" separately as The Mother and the Law in 1919, he softened the actions of the National Guard in the film, due to the First Red Scare that year. "He was obliged to put this title in the strike sequence: 'The militiamen having used blank cartridges, the workmen now fear only the company guards.'" In fact, "machine guns could not operate with blank cartridges at this period," Brownlow noted.