To make a film like Intolerance now would be a daring, hugely expensive and highly risky project. To have made it in 1916, when feature-length cinema was still in its infancy and settling into what would become its traditional forms, remains probably one of the most impressive achievements in the history of the medium. Nowadays, if someone tried to tell four stories in one film, each which its own tone, visual palette and style, and each set in a totally different historical time period, intercutting between each more and more frequently before building to a grand climax while demonstrating the links between them all, it would be truly innovative. I suppose the recent adaptation of Cloud Atlas attempted this, but in 1916 the language of film was still being formed, mainly by director DW Griffith himself ironically enough. You have to tip your hat to someone who re-writes the rulebook before it’s even been published.

Of course, Griffith had some serious critics to respond to. His earlier film The Birth of a Nation had been a huge commercial success, but its disgraceful racism had led to a storm of controversy which he was keen to address. Whether he managed this is debatable, but there is an admirably humanist appeal for tolerance and decency running throughout this film, which is in marked contrast to positive portrayals of the Ku Klux Klan and slavery apologism. Yet this is no talky, worthy drama – it was by far and away the most expensive film of all time when it was made, with enormous set pieces and reportedly more than 3000 human performers used in it. The epic scale wasn’t held back in any way, and even now it looks extraordinarily lavish, especially for a silent. Currently in the public domain, it’s worth watching to be reminded of how boundaries can be pushed before they’ve even been laid down.

One of the most ambitious films ever made, even by today's standards10
Playing with conventions of narrative form before those conventions had been cemented9
The same problem of being a little dated that almost all silent movies have5
Probably the greatest sense of scale of any film from the silent era9
Freely available in the public domain, so there's no excuse not to watch it10
Bechdel Test Passes
  • n/a
Bechdel Test Failures
  • Only features one named female character
9Overall Score

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