Griffith interweaves the four parallel stories set, respectively, in the modern era (fuddy-duddy reformers and a workers' strike), Jerusalem (Christ's crucifixion), 1572 Paris (a "hotbed" of persecution against the Huguenots), and ancient Babylon. No collection of silent films is complete without this landmark, awe-inspiring epic, which really does boast a cast of thousands (the most memorable of which is Constance Talmadge as the spunky Mountain Girl). The fall of Babylon ranks with one of the great action set pieces, complete with racing chariots, a nifty decapitation (at the hands of Elmo Lincoln, the man who would be Tarzan), and falls from what appear to be incredible heights. The edge-of-your-seat climax to the modern story, a race against time to save an innocent young man from the electric chair, is another bravura sequence. --Donald Liebenson
What is Intolerance really a metaphor for anyway? Griffith was fighting off attempts by legislators to regulate or censor the motion picture industry. An anti-censorship booklet released by Griffith in 1916 suggests he continued to respond to "moral reformers" even as he assembled Intolerance. In fact, his film is an attempt to address these reformers while simultaneously opining on nothing less than the historic importance of the film media itself.
Intolerance is really about a nation's cultural memory and Griffith's attempt to offer a totalizing, yet entertaining version of it. His belief that if we were educated on the subject of past "sins of hate, hypocrisy and intolerance" through the magic of film that we could inoculate ourselves against war, capital punishment and other evils. He argued that film was a better education than traditional education. To quote the master: "Six moving pictures would give students more knowledge of the world than they have obtained from their entire study." Such an understanding is, of course, naïve and dangerous.
Griffith was caught in a double-bind. In order to fight the censors he needed to simultaneously argue that his epics (like Birth and Intolerance) were a kind of filmed truth, yet the construction of this "truth" should only be the purview of the director. Griffith's logic is dangerously flawed. Birth of a Nation is hardly true history. In fact its racist vision of blacks fanned the flames of racial hatred in whites and surely accounted for many more lynchings than if the film had not been made. What's missing from his vision is how truth is arrived at: certainly not from a lone man's dictates. We have another word for that...
Intolerance is worth viewing because it is a wonderful illustration of the limitations of film. It's a simple morality tale blown up to epic-and phantasmagoric-proportions. It's greatest weakness is the cross-cutting between the four time-periods, and the attempt to narrate all history, yet this is precisely what makes the film interesting. The failure to arrive at an overarching metaphor that somehow spans history and unites us with our past points to Griffith's own flawed vision. It reminds us-contrary to Griffith's own advice-that understanding history in all its irresolvable complexity is absolutely essential.