The greatest films of all time: 13.Intolerance (1916)



D.W.Griffith made this film in response to the negative critics for his “The Birth of a Nation”, as discussed in the related article on this site. This film was made only a year after “The Birth of a Nation” in 1916, when Europe was burning and suffering in the first world war. The anti-war and intolerance of races, nations and else ideology of Griffith that was shown well, but not understood in “The Birth of a Nation” is well spelled out in “Intolerance” and later on his future films. In this film, Griffith shows that intolerance, injustice, hatred, murder and war is not limited to a land or time, but spans across the globe and has always been a subject of human’s nature across ages and throughout the history. Beyond its great ideology and content concept, this epic film is the first to cover more than one time episode, but four across ages and nations, so needed the proper story telling, directing, editing and cinematography and work of camera that Griffith not just managed to do so greatly, but invented it. Since Griffith himself has been introduced earlier in the article on “The Birth of a Nation”, here his ideology then his film “intolerance” will be discussed briefly.

An Ideal Prophecy:

Griffith goes beyond his films! One cannot analyze his films without recognizing his idealism of condemning intolerance, injustice, hatred, murders and wars. He is seeking ideally to end the dark side of the wrong through love, for one another and the humanity at large, through his films. But as idealism in the humans history has been only an empty hope, Griffith not only succeeded in conveying his prophecy to others at his own life time, but he was sacrificed by his own creature, Hollywood! Fortunately his ideas were passed on and replicated by the great filmmakers after him, in anti-war movies and films against injustice and hatred, from “All quiet on the western front”, to “Dr. Strangelove”, and “Deer Hunter” .

A few of the title cards of the film presented here in the following are clearly manifestos to such idealism of Griffith:

The injustice of the law:“The verdict-guilty. Universal justice, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a murder for a murder.”

“outside the Roman judgment hall, after the verdict of Pontius Pilate: let him be crucified.” (pointing to Jesus who was executed as a result of intolerance)

“Intolerance burning and slaying”

“Medici, the old cat, is scratching out the lives of all your people.”

“When cannon and prison bars wrought in the fires of intolerance-And perfect love shall bring peace forevermore.”

“Instead of prison walls-bloom flowery fields.” (points to Griffith’s idealism)

Now we will briefly discuss the film, “Intolerance” itself:  

 The Storylines:

This epic and complex film consists of four distinct, but parallel with similar content stories, intercut with increasing frequency as the film builds to a climax, that demonstrate mankind’s persistent intolerance, injustice, murder and war throughout the ages, spanning 2,500 years, as follow:

  1. The First Story: The ancient “Babylonian” story (539 BC) depicts the conflict between Prince Belshazzar of Babylon and Cyrus the Great of Persian Empire. The fall of Babylon is depicted as a result of intolerance and conspiracy arising from a conflict between devotees of two rival Babylonian Gods, Bel-Marduk and Ishtar.
  2. The Second Story: The Biblical “Judean” story (c. 27 AD) recounts how—after a wedding at Cana, the bride, in intolerance, jealousy and injustice, taken in adultery and finally the intolerance and conspiracy that led to the Crucifixion of Jesus.
  3. The Third Story: 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.
  4. The Fourth Story: The American “Modern” story (c. 1914) demonstrates how crime, injustice, intolerance, moral puritanism, and conflicts between ruthless capitalists and striking workers ruin the lives of marginal Americans.

The 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 thoughtfully have no names, so to be emblematic of human types, for example, the central female character in the modern story is called “The Dear One”, and 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”.

A Great undertaking Production:

Intolerance was a colossal undertaking featuring monumental sets, lavish period costumes, and more than 3,000 extras, at an actual cost of $2.5 million (about $47 million in 2016), an astronomical sum in 1916. A third of the cost went into making the Babylonian segments of the film, and was by far the most expensive film made up to that time. But despite all the cost and efforts, “Intolerance” despite “The Birth of a Nation”, was a commercial failure upon its initial release, though later on has been received positively mostly by the critics, so that 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, and else. In 1989, Intolerance was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, during the first year of voting.


In closing remarks “Intolerance” is a historical epic and heritage for the Cinema as a whole, by D.W.Griffith, a unique genius filmmaker who created two of the greatest films of all time, one after another in only two years. These two great works of cinema, made heroically against intolerance of many and by simple techniques of the time more than 100 years ago, almost at the start of the birth of Cinema. Now “intolerance” will be redefined one more time based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality: “Intolerance” is as original as one art form can get, in technicality, a frontier in content, style of presentation, and cross cutting across four periods of human history. The film is an archetype of so many anti-war movies, and on the subject of injustice made over years that is still ongoing. One recent example is “American sniper” by Clint Eastwood, a well depiction of a war hero who in spite of all the casualties of the war and oppositions against, strives to stay on the path of protection of the homeland and justice of his kind, but at the end is killed by a veteran, to prove one more time that intolerance prevails!
  2. Technicality: The technicality of “Intolerance” like “The Birth of a Nation” is original and inventional. A feature film of 3 ½ hours (210 minutes) in its original release, unheard at the time and even unusual by the standards of this time, full of new techniques of unorthodox editing and camera work that enormously influenced not only later American filmmakers, but European and Soviets, including the great Sergei Eisenstein. Cross cutting, fast editing, juxtaposition and fast moves between the scenes, etc. have been great lessons for so many directors later on.
  3. Impact Factor: Many of the numerous assistant directors Griffith employed in making the film, such as Erich von Stroheim, Tod Browning and 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). Moreover as mentioned earlier, the film techniques, storylines and content of anti-war, injustice, and intolerance in many formats have been replicated, and as the legend of cinema, Sir Charles Chaplin has admitted “Griffith is the teacher of us all”!
  4. Survival: Intolerance has not only survived the test of time, being re-released in at least four versions available these days, is still watchable, thrilling, enlightening and entertaining as a real film should be.


An example for all:

Since we will not come back to Griffith on this site again, to be fair to other great films and filmmakers who contributed to the cinema as an art medium, he will be discussed further as an example. Griffith who without him American cinema would have been different and sheer entertainment and commercial, should be an ideal example for the cinema as a whole. Cinema, a medium with the most access the public, needs not to be only entertaining but enlightening. The audience other than the entertainment that is temporarily and for the moment of watching, should take something important home with them. This importance is missing in many feature films, specially nowadays or it is a negative learning and example, such as killings and murders under the rubric of action and thriller that the audience take home. It has happened many times and to many people, the positive influence of a movie and why not focus and work on that. A comedy and an action film could easily have a positive message and influence as the great works of Charles Chaplin, Vittorio De Sica, John Huston and Stanley Kubrick did.


As Orson Welles, the maker of “Citizen Kane” who was not recognized well at his own time but worshiped later stated about Griffith, American Cinema and Hollywood owes this man a big redemption. The film critics who many follow in a blindfold manner, need to do a better job than giving a thumb or two up about films with no depth analysis and review. Cinema as a whole to survive the sheer digitalism and entertainment and remain as an art format, need to follow the example of Griffith and alike and recognize them!



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