Though many people hold Intolerance as one of the finest films of the silent era, and one of the earliest art films, it wasn’t so popular when it was originally released. It bombed so badly, D.W. Griffith’s production corporation faced bankruptcy.
However, contrary to urban legend, the film’s distributor, Triangle Film Corporation, didn’t go bankrupt because of it. Their 1918 bankruptcy was caused by Harry Aiken’s embezzlement.
It cost around $2.5 million to produce this film, $47 million in 2016 figures, making it the most expensive film produced to date. About a third of that was for the Babylonian story. Since most of the costs came out of Griffith’s own pockets, this played a huge role in his financial ruin.
Initially, only the modern story (called The Mother and the Law) was planned. Then Griffith decided to include three parallel stories. The original director’s cut was about eight hours long.
In process of editing it down to a relatively reasonable length, the Judean and French stories suffered the most. I’d really like to see that original super-long version for comparison, since those two stories are so undeveloped in the final cut.
In 1919, Griffith released The Mother and the Law and The Fall of Babylon (the most richly-developed, compelling stories) as standalones, with some new scenes which are quite different from the 1916 release. It’s too bad he didn’t do the same with the other two stories, so we could see how they looked before all that cutting.
Intolerance has a huge cast full of stars, much like the original 1925 Ben-Hur. Sadly, most of these actors are completely unheard-of among modern audiences, people like Bobby Harron (who phenomenally plays The Boy), Mae Marsh (The Dear One), Walter Long (always such a wonderful villain, and playing The Musketeer), Constance Talmadge (as both The Mountain Girl and Princess Marguerite of Valois, in her first major roles), and character actor Tully Marshall (as High Priest of Bel-Marduk).
Griffith’s sentimentalism is on full display with a lot of the character names—The Boy, The Dear One, The Rhapsode, The Mountain Girl, The Musketeer, The Friendless One, The Kindly Heart, Brown Eyes, and The Princess Beloved.
Over the years, Intolerance has built a much greater reputation, and served as an influence on many filmmakers, particularly European and Soviet. In 1923, Buster Keaton parodied it as Three Ages.