Photoplay Vol. XIII March 1918 No.4
Griffith, Maker of Battle Scenes, Sees Real War
By Harry C. Carr
“I found myself saying, ‘Why this is old stuff. I have put that scene on myself so many Times – Says Mr. Griffith; “Viewed as a drama, the war is in some ways disappointing. As an engine it is terrific.
It was in the ruins of the Court of Belshazzar. A decayed and very tough looking lion who once graced the Imperial throne of Babylon looked down with a dizzy smile. One of the beast’s majestic hoofs had been chipped off and some graceless iconoclast, with no respect for art, royalty, or lions, had thrust the decapitated member in the lion’s mouth.
And you know that none of us could look our best with an amputated foot in our mouth. And the lion saw—what he saw. In the middle of Belshazzar’s court stood a small stage and at the edge of the stage stood a tall man with a straw sombrero punched full of holes. There was never another hat like this in motion pictures. David Wark Griffith, maker of canned wars and mimic battles, having looked upon a real war at very close range and having been in the midst of a very real battle, is back on the job again—making another war picture in the midst of the studio where ‘Intolerance” was filmed. Of all the interesting events of this great war, not the least interesting was the visit of Griffith to the front line trenches.
I have met many men who have seen the great battles of Europe face to face and I have never been able to get anything satisfactory out of them. I went to Europe as a newspaper correspondent myself and saw one of the greatest battles of the war; and I never could get anything out of myself. For months I have been waiting anxiously to hear what Griffith, maker of battles, would have to say. The question that naturally rises in every one’s mind is this: “Was the real thing like the battles of his imagining?” And that question is naturally followed by another, “Now that Griffith has seen a real war, what use will he make of the material?” I asked him and he threw up his hands and laughed. “There was a man once,” he said, “who contended that fiction was a good deal stranger than fact and a darned sight more interesting. He had some grounds for his contention.” And then he went on to explain. “Viewed as a drama, the war is in some ways disappointing. As an engine it is terrific. “I found myself saying to my inner consciousness all the time, ‘Why this is old stuff. I have put that scene on myself so many times. Why didn’t they get something new?’ Do you catch what I mean? “It was exactly as I had imagined wars in many, particulars. I saw, for instance, many troop trains moving away to the front. I saw wives parting from husbands they were never to see again. I saw wounded men returning to their families. I saw women coming away from the government offices, stunned with grief, a little paper in their hands to tell that the worst had happened.
“All these things were so exactly as we had been putting them on in the pictures for years and years that I found myself sometimes absently wondering who was staging the scene.
Everything happened just as I would have put it on myself—in fact I have put on such scenes time and time again. “By rare good luck I was able to get into the front line trenches. This honor was never before accorded to any American motion picture man. “The Misses Gish, Robert Harron and the others of my company were permitted to go to one of the ruined French villages and we made the greater part of the picture there that I am now finishing here in the studio.
“The conditions under which these girls worked were exceedingly dangerous. The town was under shell fire all the time. We all feel that, as we shared their dangers, we would like to give the proceeds to alleviating the hardships of those who were left behind and have to face it through to the end. The entire proceeds of this picture will go to some war charity—probably for the benefits of the mine sweepers whose lives are sacrificed to make the seas safe for the rest of us to travel.”
I asked Griffith what the battle looked like when he got into the front line trenches. He looked at me narrowly.
“You saw a battle; what did it look like?” he countered.
“It looked like a meadow with two ditches in it and some white puffs of smoke and no signs of human life anywhere.”
Griffith laughed. “It looked something like that to me,” he said. “I said that many of the scenes of the war made me think of our own motion pictures; but not the battles—not the battles.
“A modern war is neither romantic nor picturesque. The courier who dashed up on a foam-covered charger now uses a desk telephone in a dug out.
Sheridan wouldn’t bother to dash in from Winchester twenty miles away. He would sit in front of a huge map at Winchester and rally his troops by telling two draftsmen how to arrange the figures on the scale map while a man in a corner at the phone exchange with a phone head piece would send out the orders over the wire.
“Every one is hidden away in ditches. As you look out across No Man’s Land, there is literally nothing that meets the eye but an aching desolation of nothingness—of torn trees, ruined barbed wire fence and shell holes. “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 up to their hips in ice cold mud. The dash and thrill of wars of other days is no longer there.
“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. The war correspondents of today are staggered almost into silence. A very great writer could describe Waterloo. Many fine writers witnessed the charge of Pickett’s army at Gettysburg and left wonderful descriptions. But who could describe the advance of Haig? No one saw it. No one saw a thousandth part of it.
“Back somewhere in the rear there was a quiet Scotchman with a desk telephone and a war map who knew what was going on. No one else did. “A curious thing that everybody remarks who has seen a modern war is that the closer you get to the front, the less you know what is going on. “I know a war correspondent who was with the Austrians when they retreated before the Russians in the Carpathian Mountains in the spring of 1915. I asked him to tell me just what the rout of a modern army looked like. My friend looked sheepish and finally told me he would kill me if I ever told but—’The truth is,’ he said, I didn’t know they were retreating until I got back to London three months afterward and read about it in the files of a newspaper.’
“The most interesting and dramatic place in a modern battle is four or five miles back of the line. Back there you get something of the stir and thrill of the movie battle. Artillery is moving, ambulances come tearing down the roads with the dying screaming as they take their last ride. Streams of prisoners are marching in tatters and dejection back to the bases; wounded soldiers are making their own way. Motorcycle messengers go tearing to and from. Strange engines of war covered with camouflage are trundling by on their way to some threatened point.
“It is back there that you begin to catch the meaning of this terrific machinery of battle.
“You begin to realize that, after all, you are face to face with a drama more thrilling than any human mind could conjure up.
“The drama that is in modern machinery is not at first realized. The world of art used to bewail the passing of the picturesque old phases of life and the coming in of machinery. It took a Pennell to see the wonderful artistic possibilities of machinery. “Just so it finally comes to you that the real drama of this war lies in the engulfment of human soldiers in these terrible war monsters men have built in work shops.
“Promoters often boast of having made motion pictures for which the settings and actors cost a million dollars. The settings of the picture I took cost several billion dollars.
“When you see the picture you will see what I mean. I thought in my mimic war pictures I was somewhat prodigal for instance in the use of cannon. In my picture made at the French front, I made one scene showing thirty-six big guns standing almost wheel to wheel firing as fast as the gunners could load and fire. “I think I will be able to make good the claim that I will use the most expensive stage settings that ever have been or ever will be used in the making of a picture.” Griffith smiled and declined to state his plans for the use of this war material. This first picture is for charity,” he said. “After that, I will go on making Artcraft pictures.”
Motion picture people are looking for another spectacle from him. “Intolerance” proved to be a big hit in London and Paris and has practically paid for itself over there, without counting the receipts on this side. In the older culture of Europe, the story of Babylon was better understood and better appreciated.
In fact, it was “Intolerance” that got Griffith the rare boon of a pass to the front line trenches. His previous spectacle also made a great sensation abroad. “The Birth of a Nation” happened to go in London for the first time when the Battle of Loos was in progress. It translated the war for the Londoner into terms that the human mind could comprehend. As I have said before, no one can comprehend a modern battle any more than any human mind can comprehend the real significance of a billion dollars. You can look at a dollar and dimly realize what a billion of them mean. So they needed an epitomized battle to make them comprehend the conflict in which their husbands and sons were dying. They found this in “The Birth of a Nation.” It gave them a better idea of a battle than any one could tell; in fact a better idea than as though they had seen a real battle.
Although Griffith speaks of it lightly, he had a very narrow escape from being killed in the battle that he saw. In fact it may be said to have been a little private battle of his own. A British officer had been detailed to take him into the trenches. He had a new pair of boots and was unwilling to drag those gorgeous foot coverings into the filthy muck of the trenches. When Griffith insisted upon going into the front line, the officer started to walk along the top of the trench. Griffith had no choice but to follow him. It happened that the Britisher was carrying a map case that was very shin}’. It caught the gleam of the sun and the other end of that gleam evidentiary hit a German artilleryman in the eye. At any rate, there came the peculiar whining howl that tells you that a shell is on its way. There was a good marksman at the breech of that distant 77. The shell struck not a dozen yards away and threw up a shower of mud. It happened to be a “dud” and did not explode. Otherwise there would have been no Griffith left to tell the story. They both made a dive into the trench. It was one of the old Hindenburg trenches. Hardly had they taken refuge before the storm began. Griffith crouched down behind a cement pillar that had been part of the old German fortifications. Then it began. Shrapnel and explosive shell came like a terrific storm around them. The noise was beyond all human description. Every shell that came near threw up torrents of mud and slime.
In the middle of it, a British officer appeared on the scene and looked with astonishment at this lone civilian crouching down behind a hunk of cement while the shells rained all around him.
‘”What are you doing here?” he demanded.
“I’m trying to keep out of sight,” said Griffith.
The officer was standing at the window of a shell proof that faced the other way. “I shall have to arrest you,” he said sternly. “Oh thank you; pray do,” said Griffith gratefully seeing a chance to get into the shell proof. As the British officer would have been obliged to come around in plain sight of the German to “pinch” the intruder, he evidently thought better of it and closed the aperture. Griffith had to stay there, squatting in the mud until night came and the shelling stopped. The British officers said afterward that they had never seen a fiercer artillery display than this little private battle between Griffith and the German artillery.
Since he has come home, he is the adored of all the war veterans in Los Angeles. And already there are scores of men who have done their bit and are home again from the war. A natty young Italian aviator with a war badge and a soldier from the French Foreign Legion form the first line trenches of his board of consultation. As one snap shot photograph gives a better idea of the trenches than all the words in the dictionary can possibly tell, it will not be surprising if the most accurate and comprehensive idea of this war will be given to the generations to come, not by the pages of written books but in the motion picture films that will be left by David Wark Griffith. The banging of those German guns will be crystallized in a message that millions will see. It is not the man who describes what actually happens who best tells history. It is the genius who symbolizes it for us; who puts it into doses we can take without mentally choking.