A Pictorial History of the Movies: 1916 – Intolerance

It was hard, having to post back-to-back D.W. Griffith films that are very similar in terms of what I’d talk about, but I had no choice. Intolerance is such a major film I had to do it.

I’m not going to spend most of the time talking about it’s importance in film history and all of that, except to say – it cost $2.5 million, which made it by far the most expensive film ever made, and it would continue to be as such for a number of years afterward. And it also became a flop, I guess because costs were so high.

Now, what I do want to talk about in regards to this movie is the idea of the epic film. And specifically the epic silent film. Because this film was a tremendous undertaking, and required a lot of sets and costumes and people (over 3,000 extras). It’s a behemoth film, running somewhere between just under 200 minutes or just over 200 minutes. So, about the same length as Titanic. And, just watching it, you go, “Holy shit, look at the scale.” You rarely see this type of scale in filmmaking, and it’s made all the more impressive because you know they had to do it all legitimately. You couldn’t fake any of this and make it on a computer. Everything was done for real.

The film was conceived almost as a response to the blowback from Birth of a Nation. It’s about four stories of intolerance, all taking place in four different eras, centuries apart. The film’s subtitle, “Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages,” tells you essentially what it’s about. Love and intolerance are like good and evil, constantly warring over time. The first story is a melodrama set in present day. The second is of Jesus. The third is of the St. Bartholmew’s Day Massacre of 1572. And the fourth is the fall of the Balylonian Empire. The whole film is framed by the image of a mother rocking her child.

The film itself is enormous in size and scope. The sets are just absolutely gigantic, and truly very impressive, even today. The battle scenes in this movie also look straight out of Lord of the Rings. Two Towers, Return of the King. Clearly this was a big influence, even if it wasn’t conscious. But the costumes and the production design of this movie are truly impressive, and that’s really what I wanted to focus on.

Because features at this point are still new. And even Birth of a Nation was great and all, but that film didn’t go as far as this one did in terms of scope. That film had a nice sequence with the cannons and Atlanta on fire, but it didn’t go anywhere near what this one did in terms of creating a fictional environment. (Of course the film was a commercial failure, because what do audiences know?)

Just watch the Babylonian battle scenes to see what I mean. The scale of the sets there… it’s breathtaking. Even today. And you look at the complexity of the costumes. They spent money on this movie. And it shows. You’re more invested in this movie because of it. This is the first example of epic filmmaking, and because of it, the film remains one of the greatest films ever made. Birth of the Nation is the one with all the press, but this is the better film. This film is one where, if you actually manage to sit through it on the big screen, you’ll truly be blown away by what you see. If you really give it your undivided attention for the three and a half hours (you can take an intermission, that’s allowed), you’ll be amazed at how incredible this film is. This is a film that’s bigger and looks better than any film made within a decade of it.


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