During the late 1910s 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.
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 60 injuries were treated at the production's hospital tent.
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.
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.
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.
According to Kevin Brownlow's three-part documentary American Masters: D.W. Griffith: Father of Film (1993), this film did indeed pay for itself. However, what it 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.
D.W. Griffith invested more than $2 million in this film, an unprecedented amount of money at the time. Unfortunately, it never even came close to earning back its budget--audiences in 1916 were completely unused to seeing films that ran in excess of three hours. Even when it was re-cut and released as two separate features, "The Fall of Babylon" and "The Mother and the Law", it still failed to make money.
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.
'Lillian Gish' claimed that D.W. Griffith invented false eyelashes for this film in 1916. Griffith 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 was credited with involved weaving human hair through a fine strip of gauze, creating false eyelashes. However, like many Hollywood legends, this claim proves to not be true. In 1911, a Canadian woman named Anna Taylor received a U.S. patent for the artificial eyelash; hers was a crescent of fabric implanted with tiny hairs. And even before that, hairdressers and makeup artists tried a similar trick. A German named Charles Nestle (nee Karl Nessler) manufactured false lashes in the early 20th century and used the profit from sales to finance his next invention - the permanent wave. By 1915, Nestle had opened a New York hair-perming salon on East 49th Street, with lashes as his sideline. Also, one of the earliest known attempts to enhance eyelashes was during the times of the Ancient Egyptians, when royalty used black powder called 'kohl' to protect their eyes against sand, dust and bugs. However, this was to provide practical benefits, rather than cosmetic.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Many sources claim that the walls of Babylon were actually life-size, at 300 feet--more than 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.
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 this film, playing Babylonian slave girls.
Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis appear as solo dancers on the Babylonian steps. Though St, Denis always denied this (insisting she had never appeared in silent films), Shawn confirmed the appearance. The couple operated their famous Denishawn dance school in Los Angeles at the time and were major dance stars of the era.