- The great war films
- Lawrence J. Quirk 1994
- A Citadel Press Book Published by Carol Publishing Group
Hearts of the World 1918
PARAMOUNT / ARTCRAFT 1918
CAST: Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, Dorothy Gish, Josephine Crowell, Jack Cosgrove, Adolphe Lestina, Kate Bruce, Ben Alexander, George Fawcett, George Siegmann.
CREDITS: D. W. Griffith, director; D. W. Griffith (under an assumed name), screenplay; Billy Bitzer, photographer; James and Rose Smith, editors. Running time: 122 minutes.
Established as master of war movies, D. W. Griffith took on World War I in Hearts of the World. It was made at the request of the British government in 1917-18, and is as much a propaganda film as a drama, with much newsreel footage thrown in for good measure. But its leads (Robert Harron, Lillian Gish, and Dorothy Gish), its villain (George Siegmann), and an adorable child actor, Ben Alexander (who was to become a poignant, vulnerable soldier in All Quiet on the Western Front twelve years later), help greatly to put it over. And it also offers a glimpse of Noel Coward, age eighteen, pushing a wheelbarrow through a French village street.
As always in Griffith works, the battle and skirmish scenes are handled with consummate depth and force, and Bitzer’s photography and James and Rose Smith’s editing point up the locations—many of them authentic—shot in England and France, with later photography in Hollywood. Griffith’s aptitudes with actors are also on impressive display, as he coaxes a winsome vulnerability from Lillian Gish; a manly, sensitive, but bewildered persona from Robert Harron; and a hoydenish esprit from Dorothy Gish, who plays a minxy type pursuing Harron, and whose title in the film (The “Little Disturber”) was to be her trademark henceforth and largely shape her screen characterizations through the 1920s.
Siegmann delivers in grand style as the “Bad German”; he is up to no good here—and in spades. Siegmann was to give Erich Von Stroheim a run for his money in “Bad German” parts. Even his name, “Von Strohm,” was a takeoff on Von Stroheim’s.
Griffith never made any bones of the fact the picture was designed to effect America’s entry into the war: The project was conceived early in 1917, before the United States’ engagement in the European fracas, and released in 1918, at the height of the war. The story deals with Harron, the son of an expatriate family living in France, just before the outbreak of war, next to another American family whose daughter is Lillian Gish.
A romance develops between these two young people, but Dorothy Gish’s high-spirited singer seeks to win Harron for herself, even though his heart is permanently Lillian’s. (The romantic leads (Lillian Gish and Harron), are known throughout as “the Boy” and “the Girl.”) Just as they are to marry, the war breaks out. Though he is an American, Harron feels he should enlist on principle, and joins the French army. While Harron is off fighting, his family’s village is attacked and devastated by the Germans, and members of both expatriate families are killed. In a famous scene, Lillian, clutching her bridal gown, and deranged by her experiences, comes upon Harron—who lies seriously wounded. She sits beside him, and they spend in silence and terror (on her part) and oblivion (on his) what should have been their wedding night. When in the morning she looks for help, the Red Cross takes the wounded Harron away. She thinks him dead. Back in the village, the Little Disturber (Dorothy) now redeemed, nurses Lillian back to health.
Later, the Germans take over the village and make slave laborers of the inhabitants, including the Girl, while the Boy, who has recovered in a military hospital, becomes a spy behind German lines. He eventually makes his way back to the village in time to rescue the Lillian Gish character from a “fate worse than death” at the hands of a lustful German officer.
Such are the bones of the plot—but all is redeemed by Griffith’s authoritative handling of the suspense and terror and unpredictability of war. Masterfully he guides Gish and Harron into sharp portrayals that, despite their conventional outlines, take on a poignant individuality. And the attack on the village, and other action scenes, are riveting.
Robert Harron, an actor close to Griffith during his early career, was a sensitive, handsome performer who died in 1920 in a mysterious shooting accident. He was only twenty-six. His work in Hearts of the World, and his other fine performances, keep him alive for audiences and commentators alike.
*** Admin note: Griffith, Lillian and Dorothy Gish were invited as guests by President Harding – April 22, 1922 Exhibitors Herald. – in Mr. Quirk’s book this photograph is captioned wrong as “Griffith (right) with Dorothy and Lillian Gish, abroad to make the film.”