Picture-Play Magazine March 1918
Griffith—and the Great War
America’s foremost producer is preparing a film spectacle, based on the world contest, which is expected to eclipse his past masterpieces.
By Paul H. Dowling
The massive walls of the lathand-plaster Babylon were crumbling away slowly or being razed to the ground by scores of workmen. A fighting tower, swayed by the combined strength of half a hundred arms, bearing away at tackles and pulleys, toppled and crumpled into bits on the brown field of stubble, raising into the dear air a cloud of dust and plaster and fine-chopped splinters. Babylon had fallen for the last time.
In the shadow of a city wall, where men had fallen in the battles of ”Intolerance,” a small band of players were enacting a scene from a great drama. There were only a few in the group, and they—already hidden away as if in a corner of the ruins of some old Pompeii, were further protected from the gaze of the curious by canvas reflectors. There I found David W. Griffith, shortly after his return from Europe’s battlefields, directing a scene in the shadow of Babylon’s wall. With him were Lillian and Dorothy Gish, apparently none the worse in youthful sweetness, health, and charm for their experiences in bomb-frightened London and amid the shattered ruins of Belgium and France, and with them Bobby Harron, camera-genius Bitzer, George Siegemann, and others. It was just a small particle of a scene ; but the production of which it was a part is expected to be greater than the story of Babylon, greater than “The Birth of a Nation,” for it was a bit of Griffith’s forthcoming production based on the most stupendous drama of all history — the present war.
After eight months spent at the front, after hours and days in the very frontline trenches, Mr. Griffith returned to Los Angeles a few weeks ago to complete his undertaking. He was a more rugged Griffith than the man who went over to London nearly two years ago to stage “Intolerance” there. He was more serious. Having done what he modestly calls his “bit,” Mr. Griffith came home, bringing with him the precious prize of eighty thousand feet of film, the only motion pictures taken at the fronts with the exception of the official war pictures taken by the allied governments and preserved for a permanent record of the events of the struggle. Mr. Griffith went to England to stage his “Intolerance’ with no thought of the work he finally undertook. It was at the request of titled personages who saw “Intolerance” and suggested that he might do something to aid in the world’s charity work that turned his attention from private business, and, armed with unheard of passports to the front, set forth on his greatest venture.
Not primarily for personal gain were those pictures taken. They will form the background of a great photo drama—or perhaps several photo dramas, a part of the proceeds of which are to be donated to the allied relief funds.
“The man who sees the war at first hand,” declared Mr. Griffith, “forgets that he ever had any petty ambitions of his own. He feels that this is the one great thing which is going on in the whole world. Beside that, nothing much matters now.”
It is, in fact, with great difficulty that one can get the noted film director to speak of his own work, in which he is now so engrossed. It developed, withal, that he was the first American to get into the first-line trenches in France.
“I was within fifty yards of the boches on the Ypres front at one time,” he said. “How did I feel? Well, I was so frightened I didn’t realize what was happening. Yes, I was actually under fire, and men were killed within a few feet of me. At one time we were inside a dugout with a big gun, and even as we were leaving the long range guns were trained on the spot, and the gun was shot to pieces in a few minutes. One of our own cameras, in fact, was standing in a position exposed to fire when a shell exploded, and—but that is a story which will be told later.
I wore the war helmet and the gas mask, for we were within reach of the poison-gas grenades of the enemy. We witnessed and barely missed personal contact with the horrors of liquid fire; we passed hours among bursting shells, and had on eight occasions experienced the dangers of German aerial raids in London. Four of these times we were caught in the street in great peril of the rain of fire. Only a few weeks ago I was on the firing line in Flanders, where the bloodiest of the recent furious fighting took place, and it will give you some idea of the intensity of the contest to know that in the short space of time since I left it is estimated that in the small sector where my headquarters were established there have been between sixty and a hundred thousand casualties.
“It is very difficult getting into the front-line trenches, not so much from physical as from official obstacles. But letters from the great ones in England to the great ones in France made our path comparatively smooth.”
Mr. Griffith had the honor of being summoned to appear before the King and Queen of England, but he was in the midst of operations in France at the time, and could not leave. On his return to England, however, he was presented to the queen. Mr. Griffith’s position in England was unusual. He was given the assistance of the British government in making his pictures, and he and his camera man were permitted in territory denied to all correspondents. In London, he had the cooperation of the most distinguished women of King George’s court, many of whom have played an active part in his big charity production. Such notables as Lady Diana Manners, daughter of the Duchess of Rutland ; Miss Elizabeth Asquith, daughter of the late prime minister, and the Princess of Monaco are all seen frequently in the film, their work gladly offered because the ultimate purpose of the film was for war relief funds. Mr. Griffith’s own perspective, after seeing so much of the actualities of war, includes both the awful elements and the hopeful significances which are to arise. But let him give his impressions of the throbbing march of events in his own words:
“Vimy Ridge in the spring, Ypres on that memorable September 19th, Arras —I saw those. What I saw in detail, I cannot tell, for my pledged word forbids. Without that restriction, I would not want to tell. “My ‘close-up’ of the war front is a blur of conflict, horrors, heroism, terror, sublimity — and promise. When you see the physically half dead, the mentally obscured thousands of men from the cities and slums who are shortly transformed into real men with real minds by the process of discipline and the implanting of the consuming lesson of devotion, courage, and true patriotism, you see that the war is not all unblessed. This war will, in many ways, liberate the world from itself—its worst self.
“Speaking of the salvage of war, we may consider the fact that the death rate is now five per cent. What then of the ninety-five per cent of the men who return home? These are the men who have been through the fusing process of the melting pot of trench life. We may expect these men to return to their homes and their governments demanding a more sensible world, and being big and strong enough to make their demands respected.”
In the film production which he has made in the past, Mr. Griffith has proven to be a master of dramatic technique, which includes the handling of that difficult attribute—suspense. It is extremely fitting, therefore, that he should realize the dramatic values of this, the greatest drama which has yet happened. “It is a drama at the front,” he said, “for suspense is the keynote of all dramas, and the suspense at the front makes it the drama of dramas.
It gives you a dry, nervous choking; you are taut, strung tight with intricate emotions, your whole being involved at every move.”
The producer described with picturesque vividness an experience on one of the fronts where he had journeyed to take pictures : “There was a shell broken forest where we were to meet some men at the edge of the woods. We went by the sixteen-inch guns ; then the nine-inch, the six-inch, and the eighteen-pounders, the latter, of course, the nearest to the first line. Over our heads was a British plane, and the batteries were going like the furies of hell. As the day passed, we saw countless thousands of men spread over the fields as thick as the grass would have been had there been any grass. Suddenly where the men were there were no men ; they had disappeared in the trenches and communications. “We advanced to a position where there had been a crossroads and farm, but now all was obliterated in a mass of shell holes, bricks, and dust. As the shells fell, and we made slow time, there came an awful feeling of fear and a desire to go back. But no one went back, for that would have required even greater courage. On the other side of the wood, a party, including our friends, advanced. When the shells came faster, we broke for an old pill box. It was hit, and some of our party were hurt, but the shelter held. ”Then a shell broke back of the other group. A rain of shrapnel came down, and the little group divided for greater safety. We had a desire to shout at our friends to go back, but a shout could not be heard amid the awful scream of the shells. The men in the little party continued to advance. Half a dozen big shells broke, and suddenly men and battery were all obliterated. The rest was like a nightmare, with the awful sickening feeling of death near at hand. We mourned our two men. “When we had returned later to the rear, the discovery was made that our two men had been warned against going out with the party. An old war-worn captain exclaimed: I told you this morning that your people should not have gone into that wood. The boches do not like any one to walk in that wood “
After Mr. Griffith had talked of the war, his party moved to a little house across the street from the “Intolerance” settings, where the producer, together with several Frenchmen, Austrians, and Germans, who of necessity are engaged in completing the war productions, pored over hundreds of war photographs taken by a Los Angeles correspondent who had spent much time in Germany, Poland, and Russia during the early periods of the war. This study of the enemy is of extreme importance, in view of the matter of costuming of accurate details of rank, and a thousand and one other things which must be taken into consideration in the completion of a tremendous spectacle of gripping realism such as the material of this conflict must furnish. Then the party again took up its work of making pictures, this time at a pretty little garden exterior, constructed on one of the gently sloping hills a few hundred yards back of the Babylonian elephants and tottering walls. A crew of carpenters and scenic artists were removing from the vast wreckage of the time-worn settings bits of plastered boards and canvas and fastening them up to complete the exterior of what might pass for a charming little country house in Belgium. Here Dorothy and Lillian Gish shortly appeared, to sit down on the sunburned slope of the hill and wait for their scenes, which were to match up with pictures made in a ruined city of Flanders. Dorothy sighed a sigh of complete peace and relaxation as she sat with her sister and the mother of the celebrated actresses, Mrs. M. R. Gish. ”Oh, isn’t it good to be back here again !” the little lady exclaimed, with a genuineness of expression which revealed her true feelings at being able to sit down, safe and sound, on a sunny hillside in California and never have to go back again to the terrifying air raids in London and the pitiful sights in the towns of Belgium and France.
“I want to settle down on a farm in southern California.” Was Dorothy’s heartfelt wish. Lillian spoke up and told of Dorothy’s fright during the air raids in London.
“We were on the third floor of a family hotel,” said Lillian, and every time there was an unusual commotion outside or in the hotel, the people in adjoining apartments declared they could hear Dorothy’s knees shaking above the din and clatter of the bombing.
“No book that I have read,” declared Lillian, “has portrayed the full horror of war. It would take a superhuman writer to picture it. “The English did nothing but three cheer the American boys who first arrived, from start to finish. Naturally, as we were among the few Americans in London at this time, we were wildly excited, but those English folks showed ever bit as much enthusiasm as we did. We were in London on the day of a “parade by the first contingent of American soldiers, and the feeling displayed by the English people disproved all that has ever been told of the staid and unsentimental English.”
“It was that way in Paris, too,” Mr. Griffith added. “While a year ago Paris was a gloomy place, filled with mourners, yet at the time of our later visit, the arrival of the American soldiers had had the effect of making every one cheerful again.”
”London displays considerably more of a war spirit than does Paris,” Lillian continued. “In both cities, however, it is considered rather poor taste to wear fine clothes, or to display luxury. We did not see a really well gowned woman throughout all our travels about Europe. In Paris, every third woman wears mourning, while in London nearly every man is in uniform. They are using men that you would think had passed the age for military service. These middle-aged men, of course, are not sent to the trenches. The only amusement in London is the theater. There are no dances or society dinners.”
Dorothy Gish described the return of their party on a camouflaged ship; one, she says, ‘daubed with every color of paint you could think of. Several times on the return trip over the Atlantic we were ordered to dress and adjust life belts, but nothing happened in the way of a U-boat attack. Of course the very thought of submarines was terrible, but after going through the air raids in London nothing was as bad, even being within range of the guns, as it was in Belgium.”
Lillian Gish, with a far-away and wistful look in her eyes, expressed her sympathy for the soldiers of America and the Allies who are now going into those shell-torn areas which she saw on the French and Belgian front. “I never thought or dreamed of the actuality of warfare, and I hold the hope so often expressed by the English people, that America’s entrance into the war spells an early victory.”
While the scenes were in preparation, Mr. Griffith moved about among the ruins of “Intolerance,” not unlike the devastated cities of Belgium and France, and again reflected over his experiencesof the past ten months.
”My most dangerous moment,” he said, “was at a time when I was under the guidance of a young British officer who was extremely proud of the lacquer on his boots. He wanted to avoid the mud in the trenches, so we walked outside, and ultimately had occasion to examine a map of the district we were in. This evidently attracted the attention of the Germans, who supposed we were deciding upon a site for a gun, for they at once began ‘strafing’ us. A ‘dud’—that is, a shell which doesn’t explode — dropped within five feet of us, and then the rattle of artillery came with deafening proximity until we found our way back to the trenches and rolled in, boots and all, glad to seek safety in the mud.”
Though Mr. Griffith did not disclose the exact nature of the films which are now being completed, it is evident that they will furnish a valuable record ; for they will contain views of every kind of mechanical device used in the present war. The spectator will know everything there is to know about the fighting devices of this war; aeroplanes, tanks, blimps, and trenches. Every position of danger, every vantage of attack, will be presented in the first production, which is to be for charity. A part of the proceeds, by the way, will go to blind soldiers and to sailors injured in the trawlers, who, Mr. Griffith declares, have one of the nastiest, meanest jobs of the whole war, taking their lives in their hands every time they venture half a mile from shore, and seldom receiving relief money for their wounded.
While the work of completing the film spectacles goes on at the romantic old spot where Babylon fell, the film producer walks among the ruins which recall those of the actual fighting front. And he is glad to have returned. But there is ever present a spirit of abstraction— a thought of what is going on over there, and a dream of what is going to come out of it all.
“There can be but one result,” he asserted, with intense earnestness. “It may be a long war. It promises to be a long war. But the Germans are defeated now, and will ultimately be conquered. It will be the beginning of the birth of a new world.”