Critics Consensus

A pioneering classic and one of the most influential films ever made, D.W. Griffith's Intolerance stands as the crowning jewel in an incredible filmography.



Total Count: 34
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Sometime during the shooting of the landmark The Birth of a Nation, filmmaker D.W. Griffith probably wondered how he could top himself. In 1916, he showed how, with the awesome Intolerance. The film began humbly enough as a medium-budget feature entitled The Mother and the Law, wherein the lives of a poor but happily married couple are disrupted by the misguided interference of a "social reform" group. A series of unfortunate circumstances culminates in the husband's being sentenced to the gallows, a fate averted by a nick-of-time rescue engineered by his wife. In the wake of the protests attending the racist content of The Birth of a Nation, Griffith wanted to demonstrate the dangers of intolerance. The Mother and the Law filled the bill to some extent, but it just wasn't "big" enough to suit his purposes. Thus, using The Mother and the Law as merely the base of the film, Griffith added three more plotlines and expanded his cinematic thesis to epic proportions. The four separate stories of Intolerance are symbolically linked by Lillian Gish as the Woman Who Rocks the Cradle ("uniter of the here and hereafter"). The "Modern Story" is essentially The Mother and the Law; the "French Story" details the persecution of the Huguenots by Catherine de Medici (Josephine Crowell); the "Biblical Story" relates the last days of Jesus Christ (Howard Gaye); and the "Babylonian Story" concerns the defeat of King Belshazzar (Alfred Paget) by the hordes of Cyrus the Persian (George Siegmann). Rather than being related chronologically, the four stories are told in parallel fashion, slowly at first, and then with increasing rapidity. The action in the film's final two reels leaps back and forth in time between Babylon, Calvary, 15th century France, and contemporary California. Described by one historian as "the only film fugue," Intolerance baffled many filmgoers of 1916 -- and, indeed, it is still an exhausting, overwhelming experience, even for audiences accustomed to the split-second cutting and multilayered montage sequences popularized by Sergei Eisenstein, Orson Welles, Jean-Luc Godard, Joel Schumacher, and MTV. On a pure entertainment level, the Babylonian sequences are the most effective, played out against one of the largest, most elaborate exterior sets ever built for a single film. The most memorable character in this sequence is "The Mountain Girl," played by star on the rise Constance Talmadge; when the Babylonian scenes were re-released as a separate feature in 1919, Talmadge's tragic death scene was altered to accommodate a happily-ever-after denouement. Other superb performances are delivered by Mae Marsh and Robert Harron in the Modern Story, and by Eugene Pallette and Margery Wilson in the French Story. Remarkably sophisticated in some scenes, appallingly naïve in others, Intolerance is a mixed bag dramatically, but one cannot deny that it is also a work of cinematic genius. The film did poorly upon its first release, not so much because its continuity was difficult to follow as because it preached a gospel of tolerance and pacifism to a nation preparing to enter World War I. Currently available prints of Intolerance run anywhere from 178 to 208 minutes; while it may be rough sledding at times, it remains essential viewing for any serious student of film technique. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

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Lillian Gish
as Cradle Rocker
Constance Talmadge
as Mountain Girl
Bessie Love
as Bride of Cana
Seena Owen
as Princess Love
Alfred Paget
as Belshazzar
Mary Alden
as "Uplifter" and Reformer
Miriam Cooper
as Friendless One
Elmer Clifton
as Rhapsode
Fred Turner
as The Girl's Father
Edmund Burns
as The 2nd Charioteer of the Priest of Bel
Vera Lewis
as Mary Jenkins
Eleanor Washington
as `Uplifter'/Reformer
Pearl Elmore
as `Uplifter'/Reformer
Lucille Brown
as `Uplifter'/Reformer
Max Davidson
as The Kindly Neighbor
Mrs. Arthus Mackley
as `Uplifter'/Reformer
Luray Huntley
as `Uplifter'/Reformer
Walter Long
as The Musketeer of the Slums
Tom Wilson
as The Kindly Policeman
Eagle Eye Cherry
as Barbarian Chieftain
Ralph Lewis
as The Governor
Lloyd Ingraham
as The Judge
Ruth Handforth
as Brown Eyes' Mother
A. W. McClure
as Father Farley
J. P. McCarthy
as Prison Guard
Dore Davidson
as The Friendly Neighbor
Monte Blue
as Strike Leader
William E. Lawrence
as Henry of Navarre
Tod Browning
as A Crook
Jennifer Lee
as Woman at Jenkins' Employees' Dance
Billy Quirk
as Bartender
Tully Marshall
as A Friend of the Musketeer/High Priest of Bel
Barney Bernard
as Attorney for the Boy
Marguerite Marsh
as A Debutante Guest at the Ball
Jennie Lee
as Woman at Dance of Jenkins's Employees
Clyde Hopkins
as Jenkins's Secretary
Loyola O'Connor
as Attareo's Slave
William Brown
as The Warden/The Bride's Father
Alberta Lee
as The Wife of the Friendly Neighbor
Howard Gaye
as The Nazarene/Cardinal Lorraine
Howard Scott
as A Babylonian Dandy
A.D. Sears
as The Mercenary
Olga Grey
as Mary Magdalene
Gunther von Ritzau
as First Pharisee
Erich von Stroheim
as Second Pharisee
George Walsh
as Bridegroom
W.S. Van Dyke
as A Wedding Guest
Margery Wilson
as Brown Eyes
Winifred Westover
as The Favorite of Egibi
Ruth Handford
as Her Mother
A. D. Sears
as The Mercenary
Mildred Harris
as Harem Girl
Frank Bennett
as Charles IX
Maxfield Stanley
as Duc d'Anjou
Josephine Crowell
as Catherine de Medici
W. E. Lawrence
as Henry of Navarre
Joseph Henaberry
as Admiral Coligny
Morris S. Levy
as Duc de Guise
Louis Romaine
as A Catholic Priest
Carl Stockdale
as King Nabonidus
George Siegmann
as Cyrus the Persian
Elmo Lincoln
as The Mighty Man of Valor
Pauline Starke
as Harem Girl
Gino Corrado
as The Runner
Wallace Reid
as A Boy Killed in the Fighting
Ted Duncan
as Captain of the Gate/Bodyguard to the Princess
Felix Modjeska
as Bodyguard to the Princess
Kate Bruce
as Old Babylonian Woman
Spottiswood Aitken
as Brown Eyes' Father
Ruth St. Denis
as Solo Dancer
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News & Interviews for Intolerance

Critic Reviews for Intolerance

All Critics (34) | Top Critics (7)

  • As a medium for expressing art, moving pictures may not stand the test of time, but Intolerance is greater than any medium. It is one of the mileposts on the long road of art.

    Mar 24, 2019 | Full Review…
  • All at once the Moloch of cineastical good intentions, the first great juggernaut of auteur ambition, and the largest experimental film ever made.

    May 9, 2014 | Full Review…
  • Griffith's trademark closeups lend a quivering lip or a trembling hand the tragic grandeur of historical cataclysm.

    May 5, 2014 | Full Review…
  • Intolerance looks both backward and forward. The strong exploit the weak, it cries, and all governments throughout history are evil.

    Jul 30, 2013 | Full Review…
  • Intolerance reflects much credit to the wizard director, for it required no small amount of genuine art to consistently blend actors, horses, monkeys, geese, doves, acrobats and ballets into a composite presentation of a film classic.

    Feb 6, 2008 | Full Review…

    Variety Staff

    Top Critic
  • The verdict Intolerance renders in the controversy concerning its maker is that he is a real wizard of lens and screen.

    Apr 8, 2006 | Rating: 4/5 | Full Review…
    New York Times
    Top Critic

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