This is my World War I in Classic Film Blogathon post, complete with SPOILERS. There’s lot of awesome posts to read here at Silent-ology today, and there will be more over at Movies Silently tomorrow. Thanks for reading!
By 1917, World War I had been raging for nearly three years. Europe was reeling from the ever-increasing death tolls and relentless destruction of cities, villages, and farmlands in France and Belgium. The scale of the war, involving all the nations with the most economic power at the time, truly deserved the phrase “unlike anything the world had ever seen.”
The U.S. had managed to stay neutral throughout most of the conflict, which was starting the leave the more battered European nations at their wits’ end. At some point in the winter of 1916 and 1917, the British War Office Cinematograph Committee decided to contact the one person who they felt could change the minds and emotions of the American people…none other than D.W. Griffith, who had recently completed Intolerance. Propaganda films were common at the time, and the Committee reasoned that Griffith, King of Filmmakers, would be certain to turn out an excellent propaganda film that would inspire Americans to finally join in to help defeat Germany.
We don’t know exactly when Griffith was approached by the British for this project. It is probable that a germ of an idea had begun in his mind as early as 1915–even while the massive production of Intolerance (eight hours long in its original cut!) was going on. (Eight hours!) .
As it turned out, the U.S. officially declared war on Germany on April 6th, 1917, when Hearts of the World was still only on paper. But the following month Griffith, a crew, and his excellent cast members Lillian and Dorothy Gish (and even their mother Mary Gish) and Robert Harron set off for England and France to begin shooting anyhow.
After all, Americans would need encouragement and zeal to fight the enemy, and that was what Hearts of the World planned on delivering. And it wasn’t enough to merely film a massive propaganda film at the same time that the War itself was going on just across the ocean. Oh, no. This was the silent era, you see, and simply nothing would do but to take the cast and crew across those treacherous, enemy-ridden waters and film right on the active battlegrounds of France itself.
This kind of devotion to authenticity for a movie is almost inconceivable today. The War had been front page news for years. Everyone involved in Hearts of the World would’ve been more than a little aware of the risks involved. Yet to Europe they went–perhaps convinced that they could assist the War effort best through the power of film.
Griffith and a cameraman (not his regular cameraman G.W. Bitzer, as his last name was too German for the Allies’s liking) were the only ones who got to go to the actual frontlines. However, the others saw more than their fair share of the war’s tragedies. Lillian gave many recollections of what they witnessed “Over There” in her autobiography The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me. These make for fascinating and sobering reading:
[Griffith] sent us to Victoria and Waterloo stations, where the soldiers embarked on the first leg of the journey to France. We saw the farewells, the last waves, and, for those left behind, the lonely walk out of the station. Even more shattering was the succession of casualties, the paraplegics, the amputees. London, unlike Paris, allowed its severely wounded into the city. (192)
Just then Mr. Griffith appeared. “It’s an air raid,” he exclaimed…It was London’s first daylight aerial bombardment. We saw the planes coming up over the Thames River in the distance. Soon they were nearing us, flying in perfect fan formation, and so low that we felt we could hit them with a stone. All antiaircraft guns were turned on them. Shrapnel was bursting all around, but the sight was so overwhelming that no one was able to movie…we heard the bombing in the distance. (193)
Bombs had ripped open a large section of the slums. Ragged children with knives dug up bits of shrapnel for souvenirs. We paused before a shattered building, now all rubble and acrid smoke. Women stood on the sidewalk, sobbing. Men with frozen faces clawed through the ruins looking for the bodies of victims.
“What was here?” I asked a bystander. “What building was this?”
He turned a tear-stained face to me. “It was a school. They were flying so high the bombs went through to the kindergarten before they exploded.”
Mr. Griffith was crying too. “This is what war is,” he said. “Not the parades and the conference tables–but children killed, lives destroyed.” (193)
While watching Hearts of the World, it’s helpful to remember that this was not just another “war thriller,” not just another love story, or just another opportunity for Lillian to show her tragédienne chops. This was a film where the actors drew upon the actual grief and suffering of the war that they themselves had witnessed. Or had even experienced–Mrs. Gish apparently suffered shell shock, and the Gish sisters felt it might have contributed to her ill health later in life.
If something about Hearts of the World seems familiar, it’s very similar in plot and structure to The Birth of a Nation: two peaceful families have their lives torn apart by war. There are even fleeing villagers, nighttime battle scenes and an excellent cross-cutting climax. In Hearts of the World, the two American families live in an idyllic French village that they love. The Girl of one family falls in love with the Boy of the other. Their future seems happy and bright…but then war is declared. The Boy leaves to defend his adopted home country, and the village and its peaceful people are changed forever.
Lillian played the Girl, going from girlish innocence (similar to what Mae Marsh often portrayed) to madness, and finally recovering to maturity. As Hearts of the World isn’t as familiar as Griffith’s other films, her performance might remind you of Broken Blossoms or Way Down East. However, Hearts of the World came first. It gave her more opportunities than usual to do that type of acting. The public had gotten glimpses of her skills in Biograph shorts and features, but in this propaganda film her strengths were given free reign.
Robert “Bobby” Harron played the Boy with sincerity and a dashing air–he even gets to wear a cape throughout most of the film. His acting had always shown considerable range, particularly in Intolerance, and here he had the task of being the Soldier to symbolize all Noble Soldiers. He delivered, and recieved much praise from critics at the time, who usually commenting that his acting had “reached full maturity.”
Dorothy Gish was given the opportunity to be a comedienne in this film, and she did this with gusto. Her cheeky, confident, swing-walking “Little Disturber” is as unforgettable as Constance Talmadge’s Mountain Girl in Intolerance (no wonder the two actresses were close friends in real life). In a great scene, the Little Disturber sees the Boy, likes what she sees, and adamantly tries to woo him while he protests (he was faithful to the Girl, you see). I’ll bet that young female fans got a kick out of seeing her interact so boldly with an actor that many of them adored themselves (Harron was quite crush-worthy at the time).
Griffith took great care (with great camerawork) to paint a charming picture of the village, of its old stone farmhouses smothered in ivy and its characters toting wheelbarrows of goods and arguing over the proper way to lay sod. Reviews at the time said the characters “were like your own neighbors,” and noted how it contrasted with the brutality of the war. For Griffith got away with taking a few risks, because “propaganda.” When the village is attacked farmhouses are reduced to rubble, characters die of fatal wounds, and in a scene that must’ve caused considerable shock at the time we see one of the character’s bodies lying on the ground…blown in half by a bomb.
That image can still be startling today. War doesn’t mess around, and neither did Griffith.
He also pulls at the heartstrings. At one point, the mother of three small boys dies. The boys dig her grave themselves and carefully drag her stiff body down into it, being “brave” as she had told them with her last words. It’s tenderly done and at a time, you remember, when real civilian casualties were also mounting. If this scene is still effective today, how many more viewers at the time had pulled out their handkerchiefs?
Griffith’s Germans are of course depicted as brutes, as German villains usually were during the war. At one point in the film the Girl’s virginity is threatened by Von Strohm, the main villain. During the scene he even lies on the ground and invites the Girl to join him there–a pretty bold thing to depict in 1918! Vulgarity, underscored.
Lillian later said, in context of the depiction of the Germans:
I don’t believe that Mr. Griffith ever forgave himself for making Hearts of the World. “War is the villain,” he repeated, “not any particular people”…In the 1920s, Mr. Griffith returned to Germany and made Isn’t Life Wonderful? which was in effect an apology to the people whom he felt he had harmed in the earlier film. (201-2)
(You’re probably thinking that this begs the question as to why Griffith didn’t make a similar film for those harmed by The Birth of a Nation—Intolerance was technically not an apology. There’s a Griffith film, The Greatest Thing in Life, that has a scene where a white soldier comforts a dying black soldier deliriously calling for his mother–by kissing him in place of the mother. The film is lost but would be a fascinating find.)
Hearts of the World is not watched as often as Griffith’s other films, and is usually considered the lesser of his classics. It’s also seen as a “rehash” of The Birth, which may be technically true (with all the risks of filming involved Griffith probably wanted a story that wasn’t a risk), but is too dismissive. I’m inclined to feel that the story of families, people young and old, affected by war loses none of its dramatic power when transferred to the Western Front.
Besides, the film’s most powerful scene reaches a sublimity that The Birth hadn’t quite reached. Lillian, driven mad, puts on her bridal veil and wanders through the moonlit battlegrounds in search of her lover, ruins fresh all around her. Bobby lies on the ground, wounded from battle. She finds him. She spends the night (this would’ve been their bridal night) at his side. The scene is poetry.
A big reason why Hearts of the World is seldom watched is because it exists in a terribly battered condition, at least in the Killiam version (the only one available to me). Scenes are chopped off, the look is fuzzy and contrast out of whack, and title cards seem to be missing. In one battle scene some earlier footage is recycled, maybe to fill in a gap. Worst of all, the speed is painfully fast–Dorothy’s playful comedy and Lillian’s emotional closeups are nearly lost in the whiz of choppy motion.
This is not how the film was meant to be seen. If the dramatic impact of its best scenes is still so strong even with the fuzziness and choppiness, how much more powerful would they be if the film was restored to its former glory? Is such a thing possible? Do better prints exist?
Hearts of the World was a huge hit until the war ended and the public lost interest in war-related pictures. It’s achievements are even more impressive today, considering that this is the age of Paranoia About Safety. It is a rare blend of cinema and documentary history from an era that truly changed the world. If any film deserves to be better restored, it’s this one.
- Ben Alexander, who played the Littlest Brother, really captured the public’s hearts at the time. Later in life he would act in All Quiet on the Western Front.
- The boat that took Dorothy Gish across the Atlantic to England was also carrying the famous General J.J. Pershing.
- Yes, that’s Eric von Stroheim in one of his earliest incarnations of a Dastardly German Officer.
- Back in Hollywood, Robert Harron’s family members played bit parts in the film (his mother is the woman with a child that Lillian offers her wedding dress to, to use as a blanket).
- Much of the Hollywood footage was shot inside the massive Babylon set from Intolerance.
- While Griffith was scouting the front trenches for filming locations, his party came under a surprise attack by the Germans. Griffith and his cameraman hid in a ditch as a shell exploded nearby. While the two escaped injury, over a dozen soldiers were killed.