“Intolerance” Turns 100 Today
Today is the centennial anniversary of the release date of the D.W. Griffith film, Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916).
Perhaps the most spectacular motion picture ever made in terms of scale (3,000 extras, and never-to-be-repeated sets and costumes), the film was at least partially devised as atonement for the (entirely justified) criticisms of racism that greeted his previous film The Birth of a Nation. The theme of Intolerance is in the title, with four interweaving stories from four separate historical time periods each telling a tale of suffering and martyrdom at the hands of a cruel humanity (Babylon, the story of Christ, the St. Barthomolew’s Day Massacre, and a story of the then-present day). A three hour long sermon, despite its lavish spectacle (indeed because of it) it was not able to make back its costs at the box office. Griffith remained a relatively successful Hollywood director for the next 15 years, but after this he no longer represented the pinnacle.
Ultimately, it’s the innovative structure of Intolerance that has made it a critical favorite down to the present day. Buster Keaton, whose admiration for Griffith is evident in several of his films, used the same structure for his first length feature The Three Ages (1923).
For more on early film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc