- The War The West and The Wilderness
- Kevin Brownlow 1979
- Alfred A. Knopf – New York
The center of Ypres by 1917 has been so heavily shelled that the cathedral-like Cloth Hall has been blasted to a slender Islamic minaret. The other buildings, too, have been knocked into such extraordinarily delicate fingers of stone that there seems no way for them to remain vertical. Into this chilling scene steps a tall, jaunty figure in a smart tweed suit of English cut, a bow tie—and a tin hat. It is David Wark Griffith, recorded by a British official cameraman on his tour of the front.
The sight of this elegant figure touring the scenes of the battle is like something out of H. G. Wells’s Time Machine. Griffith, dressed for a grouse shoot, appears to be on a thoroughly pleasant afternoon outing in the midst of the bloodiest war in history. A group of French soldiers ambles past the camera, some of them turning round to give a surly glance at the lens; Mr. Griffith follows them into the picture. The camera pans as he inspects a half-completed trench. French soldiers are sweating away with shovels. Griffith peers down, grins, makes a little digging gesture, and wanders out of shot. Next, he visits a heavily shelled concrete dugout. He stumbles over the rubble, awkward in his polished shoes, descends into a crater, and disappears into the dugout. Moments later he reappears to signal to the cameraman to cut.
All the scenes have been carefully posed, and at the start of each shot, the participants wait for a moment before jerking into action, as though instructed by a director. Everyone plays the game but Griffith. As the party files through a reserve trench, they all duck their heads. Griffith, however, remains imperiously upright, spoiling a subtitle’s illusion that the enemy is but sixty yards away.
This trip to the front in May 1917 was a result of Griffith’s agreement to make a propaganda film for the British. It is perhaps ironic that Griffith should have traveled to England, ostensibly to attend the premiere of his great pacifist film Intolerance, but actually to make a film to promote the Allied cause. I owe to Russell Merritt the startling information that Griffith had already been approached by the British government before he left for England. Griffith’s own version has always been accepted as the truth: that he happened to be in England when a meeting of “the gifted men of Britain”-Barrie, Wells, Shaw, Bennett, Galsworthy, Chesterton—decided the most effective medium for the Allied nations was not a book or a play but “a drama of humanity, photographed in the battle area.”
The new chairman of the War Office Cinematograph Committee was Lord Beaverbrook, and he had already instilled a more vigorous attitude to film-making among the Official Kinematographers. The idea of inviting Griffith to make a propaganda film was undoubtedly his, and the much-publicized meeting of the authors and playwrights probably a way of deflecting criticism from the fact that the “great director” was not British.
Griffith had left Triangle in March 1917, and a big special was part of his new contract with Adolph Zukor. By coincidence, one of the financiers of Triangle, and formerly of Mutual, was Otto Kahn, of Kuhn, Loeb and Company, who now moved to back Zukor. Otto Kahn was a close friend of Lord Beaverbrook, and despite being of German extraction, he was a naturalized British citizen who fervently supported the British war effort.
The New York Times leaked the news that Griffith’s plan was to make a motion picture history of the war—on a commission from the Allies that would take him to all the fronts—that would eventually be placed in the archives. This may have been a smoke screen for Beaverbrook’s true intention; he seems to have had a massive propaganda epic on the lines of The Birth of a Nation in mind.
The offer from the British government came at a moment when history had inspired Griffith with a sense of adventure. “In one way, this is indeed a great day to be alive,” he told reporters upon his arrival in Britain. “In another terrible. It is terrible when you see the things you must see and feel the things you must feel. It is the most terrific moment in the history of the world. We used to wish that we could have experienced the days of Caesar and Napoleon. And now incomparably greater times are taking place around us all.”
A special tour of the war zone was arranged for Griffith; he crossed the Channel in a Royal Navy destroyer and made a preliminary inspection of the front. Upon his return to England, he began to set up the production, and cabled to California for Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Robert Harron, and Billy Bitzer.
In London the company stayed at the Savoy Hotel. Billy Bitzer picked up film from Kodak—during an air raid-and then bumped into Lowell Thomas, who was on a similar mission. Thomas explained how hard it was to get film, and Bitzer told him to use his name. Thus the Griffith picture replenished the supplies of the Lowell Thomas operation, and when the two men met again, at a Press Association dinner at the Savoy, Thomas confirmed that the film was still coming through.
The Gishes and Bobby Harron had raced up to the roof of the Savoy during the raid, and had seen the German planes returning, the pilots waving at the watchers on the roof. Lillian Gish suggested they go out to see the damage, and they discovered that a school in Whitechapel had received a direct hit. “Children and teachers were the victims,” wrote Bitzer. “When you hear the moans of the dying and see their mangled bodies, you realize what it is all about. We thought by getting to work immediately we might forget this scene. But we never did. Griffith, as a Southerner, was fascinated by the aristocracy of England. For a film concerned with the triumph of democracy, Hearts of the World was to have had a surprising amount of footage devoted to society beauties. But Griffith planned another film, Women and the War, to show how the idle rich had thrown themselves energetically behind the war effort.
Dowager Queen Alexandra made an appearance and among the extras were such friends of Beaverbrook’s as Lady Lavery, Elizabeth Asquith, the Countess of Massarene, Princess Monaco, and Lady Diana Manners. The scenes were shot at Lady Ripon’s estate at Coombe Hill, Kingston, and the Army and Navy Hospital. Griffith sported his finest clothes; Bitzer was astounded at the gap between the classes, and wondered at the complacency of the working class in their support of the aristocracy. The material was eventually used in The Great Love.
Griffith was given facilities to film on Salisbury Plain, the British Army’s central maneuver area, and at Witley and Blackdown, near Aldershot. Official receipts refer to vast numbers of troops and explosives—some of which blew up by accident in storage and were the subject of an army enquiry. According to Griffith, he was also given the opportunity to return to France, with his cast. A somewhat confusing impression of the film’s production has grown up around this fact. Historians have stated that Hearts of the World was actually made at the front.
The front refers specifically to the battle area; the opposing trenches that zigzagged six hundred miles from the English Channel to Switzerland were known as the front lines. The only member of the company permitted to visit the front was Griffith himself, as the Ypres reels testify. Not even his cameraman, Billy Bitzer, was allowed near the place, although he flew to Le Bourget and filmed scenes in Montreuil. The fact that his full name was Johann Gottlieb Wilhelm Bitzer didn’t help, but the army refused to allow photographs to be taken in the war zone except by official cameramen. Griffith was assigned an Official Kinematographer at Ypres, Frank Bassill.
When he returned to France in October 1917, Griffith was based in Paris, and assigned a cameraman from the Section Cinematographique of the French Army. A great deal of conflicting information has been written about the adventure. Did anyone accompany Griffith? According to Lillian Gish, she, her sister and her mother, and Bobby Harron went over; the French trip was hair-raising, and over the months” the Gish family became highly nervous and lost weight. But Griffith was only in France for a matter of two weeks. Mrs. Gish suffered a serious case of shell shock—was this due to the bombardment in France or to the concussion of the air defense guns situated next to the Savoy Hotel in London? The main location was the village of Ham, near St. Quentin, on the River Somme; Griffith stated that by a strange and unpleasant coincidence, the first scenes of the second act were taken in the village of Ham, “which has only recently fallen again into the hands of the German invader.” Yet just a handful of shots in the surviving versions were taken in France, and only one of them shows a member of the cast (Lillian Gish entering a devastated house). Billy Bitzer states categorically, While it is true many scenes were taken at the battle front by cameramen, I did not go there, and neither did any other member of the company, with the exception of Mr. Griffith.” (However, the Bitzer book is very inaccurate.)
Griffith later made a statement that, appearing out of context, makes him seem an obsessive, single-minded, and callous man: “Viewed as a drama, the war is in some ways disappointing.” Single-minded Griffith may have been’ but he was not callous. The quote comes from a Photoplay interview with his old friend Harry Carr, war correspondent and future Griffith press agent, and it goes on to say that everything he saw—troop trains moving away to the front, wives parting from husbands they were never to see again—precisely fitted his imagination. “All these things were so exactly as we had been putting them in the pictures for years and years that I found myself absently wondering who was staging the scene.” The front lines were lacking in visual impact. “Everyone is hidden away in ditches. As you look out over No-Man’s Land, there is literally nothing that meets the eye but an aching desolation of nothingness. At first you are horribly disappointed. There is nothing but filth and dirt and the most soul-sickening smells. The soldiers are standing sometimes almost to their hips in ice-cold mud.
“It is too colossal to be dramatic. No one can describe it. You might as well try to describe the ocean or the milky way. A very great writer could describe Waterloo. But who could describe the advance of Haig? No one saw it. No one saw a thousandth part of it.”
Griffith’s disappointment with the war reflected his inability to capture any more than a fleeting impression of it. By this point, artillery bombardments and mortar shelling occurred intermittently around the clock, but the kind of action Griffith hoped for—”the dash and thrill of wars of other days”—tended to take place at night.
This is pure conjecture, but so much mystery surrounds the film that I feel obliged to make a few assumptions. Once Griffith had realized the difficulty of shooting at the front, he abandoned interest in it. His remarks to Carr suggest that he was justifying to himself his work of reconstruction—the real thing, after all, had proved indistinguishable from his inspired guesswork. There was no respect for documentary per se in those days, therefore why should he not reconstruct all the action scenes at his leisure, when he could lavish his customary care on each scene?
The reason advanced by Griffith for returning to France was to make use of the devastation; yet Russell Merritt has found evidence that the War Office offered Griffith the kind of ruins he needed in England. So why the second trip to France?
If it was for authentic backgrounds, why did they not appear more often in the final film? Only a few brief shots were taken in France. A cable from Griffith to Zukor refers to $5,000 paid to the French for “facilities,” which may explain why Griffith did not shoot the entire film on the locations described in the story. I put forward the suggestion that the trip to France with the cast was the equivalent of the trip round the trenches; the idea of it gave the film a reputation for authenticity, and a veracity and dignity beyond all other war films. This is supported by the elaborate fiction given out by Griffith and his press agents, for example in a New York Times interview of 14 April 1918, which asserts that Bitzer, George Siegmann, George Fawcett, and the child, Ben Alexander, went to France, which they did not, and which describes the company sheltering from bombardment for four hours in a cellar and becoming the target of an air raid. Lillian Gish, in her book The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me, gives as definitive an account of the trip as we are likely to have; she talks of shells falling “close enough to make us nervous.”
It is this lurid melodrama that acts as a barrier for modern audiences. George Siegmann’s attempt to rape Lillian Gish seems somewhat less important today than the mass slaughter raging outside. While Siegmann’s behavior would have aroused audiences of 1918 to a pitch of patriotic fury—and we must always remember that people reacted to films in those days far more intensely than we do today—sixty years later audiences are merely amused. But look at the scene. It is actually very cleverly directed. It begins as a game; Siegmann sees his opportunity, locks the door, and has a bit of fun with the girl. He leans back in a chair and traps her tiny figure with his legs. At this point, Siegmann plays the scene amusingly, and his jack- booted horseplay fits his character. He is transformed to door-battering fury not by his inability to rape Miss Gish, but by the more serious matter of enemy infiltration. Bobby Harron, a French soldier in German uniform, has penetrated the building, an officer has been killed, and Siegmann’s desperation is thus dramatically legitimate.
Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, according to Russell Merritt, was horrified by the scenes of German brutality, and she conveyed her feelings, which undoubtedly coincided with those of her husband, directly to Griffith. He sent a lengthy telegram: “Spent a sleepless night and troubled day, trying to think why the play has made such an effect on you.” He blamed his excesses on the fact that the public was “a very stolid, hard animal to move or impress. We must hit hard to touch them.” Nevertheless, he agreed to eliminate a couple of scenes so that his film would “hit the masses” but would not offend “the refined and sensitive spirits such as yourself. Otherwise I shall be a very disappointed, broken individual, for my hopes and my work and prayers have been so bound up in this that, unless it is pleasing in your household, I feel that everything has been in vain.” Mrs. Wilson’s criticism evidently led to the reshooting of the scene in which the German soldier whipped Lillian Gish.
Griffith must have been particularly hurt by Mrs. Wilson’s reaction since he despised the pro-war propaganda pictures and was aiming at a much more elevated kind of film. Melodrama apart, the picture has some admirable scenes. Griffith never falls into the trap of romanticizing war. There are no false heroics, and the horrors of war are shown as powerfully as possible. “War’s gift to the common people” declares a title before scenes of panic and evacuation in the village. Lillian Gish’s old father refuses to leave his home. A shell explodes on the house. When Miss Gish rushes back to search for him, Griffith makes us flinch, even today, with a brief flash of the old man’s body-blown in half. And the audience has to share Lillian Gish’s agony at the death of her mother-a most moving performance- and her delirious state when she celebrates what should have been her wedding night. She finds out where Bobby Harron’s company has been fighting, and by the light of the moon, she runs out to join him. When she finds him, he is apparently dead. Wrapping herself in her wedding dress against the cold, she gently presses her body against his and joins him in sleep.
It is the sense of authenticity that makes the film so compelling, and yet there is very little that is authentic. The village is compounded of parts of Stanton, near Broadway, Worcestershire, and Shere, in Surrey, together with back-lot construction in Hollywood (on the old Intolerance set). The close-combat scenes resemble Gettsysburg more than Verdun. Worse still, the child, Benny Alexander, remains the same age throughout the entire four years of war. But for much of the film, it takes an expert to distinguish the reconstruction from the actuality material. Griffith included documentary scenes that are now beyond price. Almost shyly, he begins the film with a title begging the audience’s indulgence for his unusual prologue. “It has no possible interest except to vouch for the rather unusual event of an American producer being allowed to take pictures on an actual battlefield.” Griffith is shown in the trench at Cambrin, and at Number io Downing Street; Lloyd George shakes Griffith’s hand, wishing him “great success for his picture.” (He was actually saying goodbye on the day Griffith left for the United States!) “Apologies and thanks,” says a title. “The picture follows.”