Director D.W. Griffith’s expensive and ambitious silent film masterpiece Intolerance marks a significant landmark in cinematic history. Many reviewers and film historians consider it the greatest film of the silent era. The four widely separate, yet parallel stories are set in different ages throughout human history. In the original print, each story was tinted with a different color in order to distinguish them from one another. Three of the four are based on factual history. All of the stories featured in the film, including the Modern Story, the Judean Story, the French Story, and the Babylonian Story, span many hundreds of years and cultures and are held together by themes of intolerance, hypocrisy, bigotry, religious hatred, persecution, discrimination and injustice achieved in all eras by entrenched political, social and religious systems. This wide span of time and issues illustrates vividly the transcendence through time of mans inhumanity to man, a universal issue facing all peoples in all times.
The villains of the four connecting stories are the mill owner Jenkins and his intolerant minions, the opponents of Christ, the evil Queen Catherine, and the cunning High Priest of Babylon. These villain’s evil actions set in motion disturbing consequences for characters in the other stories, the modern-day working-class couple, for the average French Huguenot family and their daughter Brown Eyes, for Christ, and for the enlightened and revolutionary Prince Belshazzar. The recurring symbol of the Eternal Motherhood throughout the film serves to further connect the stories in the mind of the viewer. Connecting all these tales of intolerance serves to again reinforce the universality of the actions and consequences of the characters. The aftermath of the villains treacherous decisions transcend time barriers and affect others other than their intended victims.
Griffith’s project was a major step in, when the idea of the feature-length film was still in its infancy. Intolerance was a colossal undertaking, featuring monumental sets, detailed period costumes, and more than 3,000 extras. The projected cost was around 47 million dollars, an enormous sum in 1916. Part of the appeal of Intolerance was its lavish and rich cinematographical appearance. People were drawn in to watch the film in order to experience the immaculate detail of the imagery. This allowed Griffith to spread the films message to a wide number of people in the American public.
Intolerance also benefited in the American box office from the fame of its inflammatory and contradictory predecessor, Birth of a Nation. Intolerance is often described as Griffith’s cinematic apology for this openly racist detail of the Civil War and the Klu Klux Klan. However, both Intolerance and Birth of a Nation can be viewed as merely cinematic examinations of racism and prejudice. They both intended to show the history of prejudiced thought and behavior.