Four intercut stories link an exploited worker's wrongful death sentence, the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the massacre of the Huguenots during the reign of Charles IX of France and the fall of Babylon to Cyrus the Persian after Prince Belshazzar controversially adds Ishtar to the city's pantheon of gods.
D.W. Griffith was completing The Birth of a Nation when he began work on `The Mother and the Law', which would form the modern segment of this remarkable experiment. Capitalising on the 1914 Ludlow massacre, it was intended as an indictment of commercial exploitation and the hypocritical philanthropy of John D. Rockefeller.
However, the furore caused by his Civil War epic lured Griffith into an attempt to surpass his achievement and the recent success of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots at New York's Metropolitan Opera inspired him to add the events of 1572 to his design. But it was only when he was accused of racial bigotry towards the end of 1915 that Griffith's wounded sense of righteousness prompted the inclusion of the Babylonian and biblical storylines to demonstrate how truth had been crushed by intemperence and injustice throughout history.
Costing $386,000 and originally released in four identifying tints, Intolerance was as accomplished as it was ambitious. Drawing on every technique at his disposal, Griffith brought a new scope and scale to cinema, particularly through his lavish recreation of Babylon in 539BC. But it was the film's structure that proved its triumph and its undoing.
Soviet montagists like Eisenstein and Pudovkin applauded the collision of images that Griffith achieved, as he arranged shots by metre and perspective to produce parallel sequences of unheralded rhetorical power and rhythmic precision. But, while they were able to appreciate the majesty of set-pieces like Belshazzar's feast and the modern romance between the Dear One (Mae Marsh) and the Boy (Robert Harron), audiences lacked the sophistication to comprehend these juxtapositions and the film's commercial failure saddled Griffith with monumental debts.
Critical opinion of Intolerance's worth has been divided for nearly a century, with Griffith variously being hailed as a visionary and a Victorian middlebrow with a predilection for kitsch and old-fashioned morality. But the French director René Clair pretty much had it right when he declared: `It combines extraordinary lyric passages, realism, and psychological detail, with nonsense, vulgarity, and painful sentimentality.' Yet, whatever its glories and flaws, it remains a landmark in filmic art and entertainment.
It may seem flawed in a number of ways to some people but this is monumental cinema and essential viewing for true film enthusiasts