The inspiration for this film came from D.W. Griffith's surprise at the loud protests against his previous film, The Birth of a Nation (1915). In response to those attacks, he wanted to illustrate the problem with intolerance to other people's views.
The extras in the Babylonian scenes were supposedly paid $2.00 a day, per head, an astronomically generous sum at the time. They were also each given a box lunch and had temporary latrine facilities built for them.
D.W. Griffith was forced to re-shoot the sequence of the crucifixion because certain organizations were saying that Griffith shot too many Jewish extras around the cross, and not enough Romans. Griffith then burned the footage and re-shot the scene with more Roman extras.
Jenkins and his foundation are modeled after John D. Rockefeller and his own foundation. The massacre of workers at the beginning of the movie is modeled after the Ludlow massacre of 1914, in which Rockefeller was involved.
The Babylonian orgy sequence alone cost $200,000 when it was shot. That's nearly twice the overall budget of The Birth of a Nation (1915), another D.W. Griffith film and, at the time, the record holder for most expensive picture ever made.
D.W. Griffith invented false eyelashes for this film in 1916 because he wanted Seena Owen (who plays Attarea, the Princess Beloved, in the film's Babylonian segment) with lashes luxurious enough to brush her cheeks when she blinked. In collaboration with a wigmaker, who did the actual fabricating, the solution Griffith is credited with involved weaving human hair through a fine strip of gauze, creating false eyelashes.
During filming of the battle sequences, many of the extras got so into their characters that they caused real injury to each other. At the end of one shooting day, a total of sixty injuries were treated at the production's hospital tent.
Howard Gaye, an English actor who played Jesus Christ, got involved in a sex scandal involving a 14-year-old girl and was deported back to England. Because of the scandal, his name was removed from prints of the film at the time.
One of the intertitles is a quote from "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" by Oscar Wilde i.e. 'And wondered if each one of us/ Would end the self-same way,/ For none can tell to what red Hell/ His sightless soul may stray'.
The marriage scenes in the life-of-Christ part of the film were staged and shot according to Jewish tradition, under the supervision of Rabbi Myers. He was the father of Carmel Myers, who played a slave girl in the Babylonian scenes.
D.W. Griffith's penchant for revising and re-cutting his films has caused the loss of several scenes from this (and other) films. Some still frames of the scenes, although badly damaged, do at least survive.
On 9 November 2001, the newly-built Kodak Theatre Complex at Hollywood Boulevard and Highland (in Hollywood) had its grand opening (it is the new permanent home for the Annual Academy Awards event and began with the 74th Annual Academy Awards on 24 March 2002). The tall archway standing in the Babylon Court of the complex is copied from designs from this film, as are the elephant statues, each of which weighs 33,500 pounds.
D.W. Griffith invested more than $2 million on the film, an unprecedented amount of money at the time. "Intolerance" never even came close to earning back its budget - audiences in 1916 were completely unused to seeing films which ran in excess of 3 hours. Even when it was re-cut and released as 2 separate features, "The Fall of Babylon" and "The Mother and the Law", it still failed to make money.
During the late 1910's, this film was a huge hit in the Soviet Union, however D.W. Griffith never realized any financial gain since the copies being shown were pirated, and distributed without his consent.
Many sources claim that the walls of Babylon were actually life-size, at 300 feet - about 25 stories - high. However, assistant director Joseph Henabery said that the walls, which were made of lath and plaster with a lumber frame, were only 100 feet high, as 300-foot-high walls of that material would have blown over with just a light wind. In fact, even at 100 feet high the walls were guyed with steel cables because a fairly stiff breeze would have blown them down.
According to Kevin Brownlow's three-part documentary D.W. Griffith - Father of Film, Intolerance *did* pay itself. However, what the film did not manage to do was to pay its sumptuous roadshow presentation. Still according to Brownlow's documentary, Griffith ordered that every theater showing the picture needed to be modeled with a special decoration and needed to have a live orchestra playing the score of the picture.
The massive life-size set of the Great Wall of Babylon, seen in the fourth story, was placed at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Hollywood Boulevard (in Hollywood, California) when the movie was completed. It became a notable landmark for many years during Hollywood's golden era. It actually stood on the lot of the studio on Prospect Avenue near the Sunset & Hollywood Boulevard junctions in the eastern end of the city. It was the first such exterior set ever built in Hollywood. Falling into disrepair, it was eventually torn down. Years later, this same Babylon set was replicated as the central courtyard design for the new Hollywood & Highland complex in Hollywood, which opened in 2001.
After filming wrapped, the Los Angeles Fire Department cited the Babylonian set as a fire hazard and ordered it to be torn down. D.W. Griffith discovered that he had run out of money and was therefore unable to finance its demolition. The set stood derelict and crumbling for nearly four years until it was finally taken down in 1919. By then it had fallen apart enough for it to be dismantled at a sufficiently low cost.
The role of the second Pharisee is credited to Erich von Stroheim. However, von Stroheim did not play this role. D.W. Griffith decided to use von Stroheim's name as a pseudonym for actor William Courtright, who actually plays the role. This has caused much confusion over the years. Von Stroheim's only work on this film was as a production assistant for the Babylon sequences.
The intertitle during the strike which states that the National Guard has retreated and the workers "now fear only the company guards" was added to the re-release of the modern story, The Mother and the Law (1919), but it is utilized by present versions of the original film.
Anita Loos claimed that, when writing 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,' she had been inspired to give lead character Lorelei Lee a brief movie career after watching her friends on the set of Intolerance playing Babylonian slave girls.