In 2007, the American Film Institute revised their previous 1998 list of the 100 best American films of all time. This weekly column will explore my thoughts on select films from this list, mostly following along with the Unspooled Podcast, which inspired my journey to complete the AFI Top 100. You can also follow my progress with my ranking and watchlist. This week’s film is Intolerance (1916), #49 on the list.
Intolerance’s appropriately lengthy subtitle Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages sums the film up quite succinctly. It runs about three hours long (depending the version) and divides its time between four separate storylines occurring in different time periods ranging from 539 BC to present-day (then 1916), each telling a story of conflict, injustice, and, you guessed it, intolerance. The prospect of watching a 3 hour silent film about people in miserable circumstances across centuries of time initially sounded like a daunting and unpleasant undertaking, but to my surprise, Intolerance is easy to enjoy. It moves very quickly, thanks to the fractured structure and some extremely effective editing which cross-cuts between the four timelines at a perfect pace, and the filmmaking, even a century later, is absolutely jaw-dropping. The scope and scale of the sets (most notably in the Fall of Babylon story) are breathtaking, especially for the era, which rarely saw such extravagant productions. As with any film tackling multiple storylines, there are consistency issues with the narrative, with some stories warranting more screen time than others, but even when it’s not as engaging narratively (my disinterest in historical politics/warfare definitely skews my preference here), it’s nothing short of astounding to watch.
Does It Belong on the List?
You won’t typically find me making the argument that a film should be included on the list based on legacy, impact, or filmmaking alone, but there is no denying Intolerance earns a permanent spot here.