Intolerance is one of the cinema's earliest formal masterpieces. Its ambitious scale and lavish production—exemplified by the enormous, if historically inaccurate, set for the court of Babylon—were unprecedented at the time. The film was to serve as a mighty sermon against the hideous effects of intolerance; in it, Griffith proposed his view of history and myth. Intolerance interweaves his unfinished work, "The Mother and the Law,"a contemporary melodrama about the hypocrisy of well-off do-gooders set in the United States, with three parallel stories of earlier times: Christ at Calvary, the razing of Babylon by Persians, and the persecution of the Huguenots in France. Griffith explained the film: "The stories begin like four currents looked at from a hilltop. At first the four currents flow apart, slowly and quietly. But as they flow, they grow nearer and nearer together, and faster and faster, until in the end, in the last act, they mingle in one mighty river of expressed emotion."
The scale and extravagance of Intolerance brought Hollywood to the fore as the center for American film production. The film also exercised enormous international influence, particularly in post-Revolutionary Russia, where Lenin commended the scope and purpose of the film. But the complexity of the structure seemed to baffle early audiences, and Intolerance was a box-office failure, although Griffith's previous film, The Birth of a Nation (1915), had been a great success.