How I Learned To Love “Intolerance” (And So Can You!)


It’s massive, it’s epic, it’s stuffed with stars and just about drips with drama. It was one of the biggest spectacles the world had ever seen, and its scale is still awe-inspiring. It fired the imaginations of directors and left audiences reeling. And it’s…somewhat liked by silent film fans today. Somewhat.


“It’s so long.

Okay, I’ll admit that this weak enthusiasm is understandable. Intolerance is kind of the equivalent of Norma Desmond’s Isotta-Fraschini automobile–in its day it was the last word in decadence, but decades later it seemed like a cumbersome and overly-ornate relic. Intolerance demands your full attention to not only one but four storylines, often with multiple characters with different actions and motivations. It’s uneven. It tackles Serious Subjects like war and injustice toward the working man. And yes, it’s very long.

So it’s not too surprising that for many silent fans, especially the casual fans more into Clara Bow flapper flicks and Harold Lloyd comedies, it can be hard getting into Intolerance.  We can probably agree that it’s not something you just pop on to relax after a long day’s work…

Or is it?

Image result for intolerance 1916

Looks relaxing to me!

I’ve watched Intolerance quite a few times, because of the spectacle (very exciting to see in a century-old film) and the fact that I was determined to “get to know” it. And you know what? It really doesn’t have to be the impenetrable piece of Ahhrrrt many people think it is. So here’s some unorthodox tips on how to “get to know it” yourself.

First off, I’m not saying that Intolerance isn’t the kind of film you could call “turgid.” (Or “grandiose,” “grandiloquent,” “orotund,” or other big words that are fun.) I’m saying that very orotundity (fun!) is part of its charm. You always hear about those big, ponderous epics dealing with lofty themes that make cinephiles across the globe feverishly begin articles to film journals. What could be more epic and lofty than Intolerance? It’s glorious!! (I also adore silent comedies where they actually throw pies.)

Image result for dw griffith intolerance talmdage

“But it’s still too long,” complains the generation that frequently bingewatches an entire season of a TV show on Netflix. Sure it’s long–and yup, when you watch it for the first time you need to watch the whole thing. That iconic Babylon celebration scene must be viewed in its proper context. But! Don’t just plunk down and start playing a crappy YouTube version on your laptop while your friends play Cards Against Humanity in the next room. Set aside a quiet evening. Find a nice copy (via Kino or the mindblowing Cohen Film Collection version). Make it special–sip on some wine, make your favorite snack, light a candle, stop checking Facebook, whatever it takes. This is not an ordinary movie, anymore than the Notre Dame is an ordinary building.

Image result for d.w. griffith intolerance

I mean, look at that. Look at it. 

Now that you’ve seen the whole epic with the reverence it is due, get to know it. Have some fun with it. Maybe next time you’ll just rewatch your favorite scenes (the ones with Connie Talmadge, for instance–she’s hilarious!). Maybe try watching just one of the storylines at a time. Try finding little details you didn’t notice the first time. And say you’d like to see the whole thing again, but don’t feel like sitting for four hours. Just watch an hour’s worth each night, and voila!  It’s like following a miniseries. (I know purists might not like that, but for cripes’ sake, man, we’re actually watching Intolerance.)

Image result for d.w. griffith intolerance talmadge

Seriously, she’s priceless in this!

Oh, and speaking of non-purist tips to exploring ponderous dramas, here’s some personal trivia for ya: I’m one of those people who has to fall asleep with the TV on. (Playing quietly with the screen dimmed, mind you.) One of my go-to “fall asleep” films is Intolerance. I give it my full attention from the comfort of my warm cozy bed until drifting off, and the next night I’ll resume it with the last scene I can remember. I must’ve watched it a good dozen times that way. It’s swell, you guys. You can get to know an awful lot of big serious epics by falling asleep to them. (La Roue, for instance.)

Image result for gance la roue

A little light viewing.

So give this Griffith epic the reverence its due, but don’t be afraid to really dig in and explore it, the way you would a new music album or a dense but fascinating novel. I’ll be following up with 1 or 2 more Intolerance-themed posts this month, more fully explaining why it’s a heaping bowl of awesomeness that should be celebrated by silent fans around the globe. Cheers!

27 thoughts on “How I Learned To Love “Intolerance” (And So Can You!)

  1. INTOLERANCE is real cinematic wonder! I’ve lectured on a few times. Shown it numerous times to various people (even to an inner city group of Jr High kids back in the 70’s) over the decades. My ‘personal’ anecdote is that back in the late ’60s, I went to see it, for the 1st time (pre-Video/DVD days), at the MoMA. Literally, in the middle, the film just STOPPED. Turned out, they forgot to get all 13 reels from the Fort Lee vault! This high school kid was upset to lose his $1.50 entry fee. I went to the desk and they gave me a free pass for a 2nd entry and promised to call when it would be playing again. They did and I went – happy to finally see it fully. The ultimate irony of it all is that in ’93 I eventually was the organizer and main lecturer at MoMA for the Bobby Harron Birthday Centennial. Needless to say, one of the flicks shown was “The Mother and the Law” the modern story excerpted from this 4 story epic. Ironically, *that* segment was the original movie planned but due to the great impact of “Birth of a Nation” Griffith needed to build up his next flick as well as ‘crush’ some of the racial criticism expressed resulting form that 1915 masterpiece. Thus, “Intolerance” wound up with the 4 storylines enforcing better rules over injustice. A major part of its historical impact is, afterall, what movie/TV segment today does not have multiple storylines within its format? Now, people are used to it with no problem. Then, it was confusing. So, viewing “Intolerance” is a great deal easier than it was 100 yrs ago. For that we have DW to thank for giving us all better concepts of film viewing. Also, in terms of criticism about the currently seen movie plot lines; we all need to realize that it was once ~8 hrs long with each segment an actual feature length. To ease pressure from the theatre schedule, each story was then cut a bit to bring the 3+ hr film we know today. Too bad the *entire* premiere length is gone. A real loss to cinematic history!!!

    • I’ll be writing more on Intolerance’s backstory later this month, but thanks for chiming in! Yes, it’s intriguing to think of what it was like in its (super long) original format.

      I’ve watched The Mother and the Law–it stuck me that as powerful as the story is, being in Intolerance somehow gave it a bigger impact. Maybe because it’s such an intimate story set against much bigger, less personal ones.

      • Truly a fine aspect. Harron was great. Really wish he had not killed himself as I would have liked to see him grow deeper and deeper as the films got better and better throughout the 20s. Lillian, though a minor aspect IN the film, was somewhat more important WITH the film. Sure gave her deep insight about the how all was done to a deeper degree which she surely used later on for her own career. Certainly looking forward to your upcoming commentary.
        Sideline – I have had copies of the film in 8 mm, VHS, DVD and, of course, Blu-Ray. Spent $65 (I think) in 1968 dollars for the 8mm from BlackHawk. Made the whole family watch it ~ 3 x a year for a number of years. Hence, my youngest sister, then about 8 or 9 yrs old, still talks about that l-o-n-g Silent Movie, “with the castle, we had to watch all the time.” 😀

  2. Well— Silent film fanatic that I am and have been for years, I’m ashamed to admit that…I’ve never seen Intolerance. There, I said it. Yes, I have been guilty of considering it “the impenetrable piece of Ahhrrrt,” I’m afraid. I’m also sitting-challenged and stay sit still for more than 20 minutes without getting up and doing something. So this post was tailor-made for me. I’m encouraged now. I’m going to do it—in pieces—but I’m going to do it!

    • An hour each night, or whatever it takes! 😉 The Cohen set is your go-to for sure, it’s beautifully restored and has a fantastic Carl Davis score. I REALLY recommend it. The Kino version is nice too, but the new set is much clearer.

      • Ok, I watched the first act last night. I’m fascinated and most impressed by it so far! The story lines are brilliant, and brilliantly interwoven—though I must admit the plot of medieval France story lost me going round the curve a time or two.

        The modern story is extraordinarily poignant. D.W. knew how to do this kind of thing like no other. I’m reminded of how much I like Bobby Harron. And Mae Marsh—what a *splendid* performance! There was no one who could have played this part like her. I think she may have just moved into the top spot as my favorite silent actress of all time.

        Won’t have a chance to finish it up until tomorrow night. I’m looking forward to seeing how everything comes out. The Carl Davis score is magnificent, as is the print. Thank you for recommending it.

        • You’re welcome! So glad you’re enjoying it so far. Mae Marsh is one of my favorite actresses, too–and Bobby Harron’s one of my top actors, of course.

    • D – Please do it! After watching this film, you will discover how much it has impacted upon on future media aspects. Having been in contact with both Blanche Sweet (not in this film but a true Griffith-ian) and Lillian Gish numerous times over the years, they both found this to be marvelous flick. Please, do let me know how you felt after ‘eventually’ seeing “Intolerance” in its full entirety. I know you will enjoy it, but do hope it winds up on your top 10 list! As always, truly work hard to get folks to meet and greet Silents. This Spring I will even be teaching a mini-course, at the local college, entitled “SILENT SINema” w/ Sunrise (Adultery), Black Pirate (Thievery), The Gold Rush (Envy), and Wings (Hostility).

  3. If you enjoy opera, then approach INTOLERANCE the way you would one of Wagner’s Ring operas. Same approach really – forget the drooling praise of the critics and just discover it on your own terms.

  4. Great post as ever!

    Re: the run time complaint:

    I have this on Blu-ray and it’s 167 minutes (putting it 13 minutes shy of 3 hours) while “Birth Of A Nation” is 194 minutes, almost 30 mins longer! Then again I’ve seen longer films, like Lang’s near 5 hour “Dr. Mabuse The Gambler”, Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” (207 minutes) and recent films like Momoko Ando’s “0.5mm” (198 minutes) Sion Sono’s 237 minutes classic “Love Exposure”, so 2 hours 47 minutes is really nothing! 😛

    But yes this is a great film and very bold for its time, at least in Hollywood where convention was the order of the day.

    • Yeah, the run time really isn’t THAT bad. Besides, so many of the blockbusters these days are insanely long. The new (awful) Hobbit film was about 3 hours long, and I think the (even more awful) Transformers movies are about the same.

  5. Dear Lea, I’m a silent movie fan, always have been, since growing up in the 60s. I even collected 8mm/super8 silent movies before there was even a home video market… I’ve tried to watch “Intolerance,” really I have. But starting a few years ago, I have found myself falling asleep to almost every movie I watch on TV. It’s just a matter of time. It’s gotten so bad that I rate each film according to how long I stay awake for it. I don’t fall asleep when I go out to see a movie (except for “Chicago”(2002) when I had played a hockey game before and ate too many nachos) but there are so few movies — maybe once a year — that I am interested in that I watch almost all movies on my 27” SONY. Some films like “Intolerance” were meant to be seen on a big screen because of the epic nature of it. That’s why in all my years I have never seen “Gone with the Wind.” I insist on seeing it in a big classic movie theater for my first time. It has never happened. Nothing personal to D.W. Griffith, “Birth of a Nation” is incredible. I’ve seen it many times, whole. But the 4-part “Intolerance” is intolerable to watch on a small screen and will probably not make it to any huge screen theater in my area any time soon.

    • *Hands you a cup of coffee* 😛 I’ve been known to nod off during a few films myself–the ones I don’t specially choose for nodding off too, that is!

      I’m with you 100% on reserving some movies for experiencing in a theater. I didn’t watch the whole The Wind until recently, since it was FINALLY playing somewhere near me, ensuring a decent print and even live music.

    • See about getting a viewing in your local library and/or high school. The facilities are usually there. Of course, you will need to have someone from the staff to set it up and/or admin be there. Also, if a local Adult School is present they might be willing to set up a series (given the length – Intolerance may be put on a 2 part showing). As a person who has done all of the above – Teacher, Admin, Adult School Director, and Public Lecturer/Presenter, it can be done and a fair number of folks will be willing to attend as well since the viewing will be ‘something different.’ As a matter of fact, my former home also had a movie theatre for ~40 people in the basement which was, well designed by the owner prior to my purchase – one of the reasons I put down the check. 😀

  6. You’ve encouraged me give this another try! I watched the Kino version, but I’d like to see the one with Carl Davis’ score.

    It is a film that awes by it’s sheer ambition. I feel like it was almost destined to be uneven. I’m not sure anyone could have done better! Can’t wait for the rest of your posts on this topic!

    • I’m working on ’em! 🙂 The version with Carl Davis’s score is a MUST. It blows the Kino version out of the water, and I really like the Kino version. Bet you anything that Griffith would’ve loved that score, too!

  7. I may have to pick up the Cohen disk some time. The length isn’t an issue (I’ve sat through a 13 hour film), but now when I think of Intolerance, I think of Hollywood and Highland!

  8. Lea you did it again, oh my gosh………. so right…..and so funny!! “aaahhhrt” lol! I agree, Constance Talmadge is great in this movie!!! She’s the character I remember the most!

    I didn’t realize there are two different versions….I think I have the KINO.

    i tend to watch a lot of movies spread out over a couple of days, eye strain makes me fall asleep, including when I’m IN a movie theatre!

    I didn’t realize it was regarded with such mixed feelings! Ever since I saw pictures of the Babylon sequence in a movie book when I was in high school, I couldn’t wait to see it! (though wait I did…..I finally saw it for the first time two years ago).

    I remember hearing a podcast interview with an organist who accompanied silent film….and he said that he learned to do it in a baptism by fire! He got asked at the last minute to fill in for this silent movie screening so he said sure. The film was “Intolerance”!!!!! I can’t imagine a more difficult film to have to accompany!!!! Especially if you’ve never done it before!

    • Wow, that’s crazy! 😀

      I’ll have to rewatch some scenes from the Kino version, because I swear a scene or two has slightly different footage…whatever the case, the Cohen version is just magnificent. The clarity is astounding, especially in the Babylon scenes–finally you can see all the details of the city, the costumes, etc. It’s a MUST.

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