Intolerance (1916)

Responding to criticisms of racism for his record-breaking The Birth of a Nation, film-making pioneer D.W. Griffith made this epic drama depicting intolerance through the ages.

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Alternative titles

  • The Mother and the Law Alternative

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“In Intolerance we see for the first time Griffith’s supreme confidence in what he was doing, and his bold approach to narrative structure. This film is Griffith’s first really mature work.”
Paul O’Dell, Griffith and the Rise of Hollywood, 1970

D.W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation was a milestone in narrative filmmaking and a popular sensation, but a film condemned for its sympathetic depiction of the Ku Klux Klan. In answer, Griffith conceived this study of intolerance throughout human history, interspersing a Babylonian story, the Christ story, the events of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 16th-century France, and a modern American story in which moral puritanism leads to a disenfranchised man being mistakenly condemned to death.

The film cuts between these stories with increasing rapidity as it builds to its exciting quadruple climax, though the complexity of this structure proved too enervating for contemporary audiences and the film was a commercial disaster. The Babylon set was at the time the most extravagant produced in Hollywood.

Griffith was inspired to up the ante on his own grandly conceived history lessons after seeing the Italian super-production Cabiria (1914), set in ancient Carthage.

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