Special Supplement to Sight and Sound
An Index to the Creative Work of David Wark Griffith
Part II: The Art Triumphant
Hearts of the World – 1918
Compiled by Seymour Stern, May, 1947
Produced by D. W. Griffith, Inc. Original story and scenario by “M. Gaston de Tolignac” (D. W. Griffith). “Translated into English by Capt. Victor Marier ” (D. W. Griffith). Directed by Griffith. Photography: G. W. Bitzer. Music: score composed and arranged by Carl Elinor and D. W. Griffith. Technical advisor on, and supervisor of, military detail: Erich von Stroheim. Shooting time, about 9 months. Editing and subtitles: Griffith. Cutters: James and Rose Smith. Release length: 12 reels, about 12,000 feet. Running-time: 2 hours 30 minutes. Released by D. W. Griffith, Inc.: Thursday, April 4, 1918, at the 44th Street Theatre, New York City.
THEME AND STORY
What is the basic content, what is the theme, of the first film, Hearts of the World, which Griffith directed on European soil ? The theme of Hearts of the World may be described as follows: Democracy, based on individual freedom, is the best way of life, hence it is desirable. Autocracy, the opposite to democracy, rests on slavery and leads inevitably to war and conquest, hence it is undesirable. Therefore, Germany and her allies, representing autocracy and seeking conquest, must and shall be defeated by France and her allies, defending freedom and democracy.
From subtitles in the film, all of which were written by Griffith, as well as from his public speeches and statements at this time, this, for Griffith, was the underlying cause of the First World War. The evidence does not indicate that he doubted or questioned the fundamental beliefs, concepts or values of the civilizations of America and Europe, or so-called Christendom. Quite the contrary, he appears to have accepted the supposedly “Christian” nations and their cultures “as is”, castigating them at times, as in Broken Blossoms, for their enormous brutality and hypocrisy—but accepting them, nevertheless. And when these nations were attacked by their historic semi-Asiatic foe—murderous, barbaric Germany, Griffith without hesitation joined in the effort to save the victims. Neither in the images nor in the subtitles of this film does Griffith suggest that he viewed the conflict as an “imperialist war” or a “fight for markets”. Therein lies perhaps the fundamental, if not the principal, difference between Hearts of the World and Soviet films based on, or dealing with, World War I. On the contrary, Griffith makes unmistakably clear his belief and conviction that victory by the Kaiser’s Germany would have spelled the doom of Western civilization—the triumph everywhere of the most absolute and inhuman autocracy. The word “totalitarian” had not been coined in 1917, but Griffith’s exhortations to the American people were dire warnings against what is nowadays categorically termed “totalitarian dictatorship”.
Autocracy was attacking democracy; democracy, innocent, was defending itself. Economic and political causes to the contrary notwithstanding, this was the crucial fact of the conflict; this was its basic issue and its meaning. For Griffith, as for the peoples of the democracies, the war had no other reality. As already indicated, Griffith did not believe in an economic interpretation of history, but rather in an emotional and a moral one. He believed in emotion as the fundamental motivation of human behaviour, or, as Denison put it, in “emotion as the basis of civilization”. It is only too plain, as evidenced from the story and content of his film, that Griffith was not concerned with the material or economic causes of the war, but with the ideological values which must perish or survive, depending on the war’s outcome. The two principal values of his concern, both of them based on, and related to, the democratic way of life, were: personal liberty and romantic love. Here, these are threatened with extinction by the armed might of Imperial Germany—Prussian autocracy; and so, here again, as in The Birth of a Nation and in the mediaeval French story of Intolerance, Griffith’s basic and fundamental theme comes to light—crucifixion of the hearts of the world by the world. The two world-forces which grind like millstones the hearts in this as in the other Griffith films are (1) history—a process; and (2) intolerance—an emotion or passion. The forces like demons are embodied here in the nation-states of the modern Western world; their conflict is the battle of the nations. Viewed in such a world-perspective, America—England—France, the “little countries” of western Europe—all these represented the democratic way of life, “the Good”, all were popularly and properly “free” societies. And Griffith was at pains to make clear, that his advocacy of the Allied cause was no mere professional assignment, it was more than mere obedience to duty; it was a matter of principle, of simple conviction. This principle, the belief in democracy, was his theme. Hearts of the World bears the qualifying subtitle, “The Story of a Village”. Much of the action, both before and during the sequences of World War I, is laid in a French village behind the Allied lines. Some action is shown in the trenches, both Allied and German; some is laid in the Moquet Farm sector, France, at the headquarters of Prussian officers behind the German lines; the rest is devoted to scenes of actual warfare. The picture features many battle panoramas and combat sequences. Yet, despite these martial and spectacular scenes, Hearts of the World originally was advertised and known as a film, “not about the war, but about people to whom the war came”. The New York “Times”, in its review of the film the morning after the premiere, summarized the story as follows:
“There is a young girl living with her old grandparents. And there is a young man living with his parents and three little brothers. Monsieur Cuckoo, the Little Disturber, the Village Carpenter, a Deaf and Blind Musician, and many others, are village characters with their happiness and little difficulties that do not matter. “The Girl and the Boy love each other. The Little Disturber, delightful little devil of a flirt, loves the boy, but he loves the other girl and angrily spurns her. The Disturber at last turns to Monsieur Cuckoo, who has been pursuing her from the first. . . . The scenes of this French village suggest all that had been known by travel and books of provincial France before the war. . . . “Into such an atmosphere and environment, the war bursts. First a German spy inspecting possible fortifications appears with sinister suggestion. Then, just before the set wedding day of the Boy and the Girl, the town crier startles the village with a mobilization order. The whole peaceful arrangement of life is violently shattered. The men rush off to war and the women stay behind to worry and wonder. “The Germans advance against the village; many of the inhabitants flee in confusion, while shells do their destruction around them; others remain behind and seek shelter in cellars and crypts and vaults. Certain characters in the play are killed; others survive to face the fearful future. After furious fighting, the Germans take possession of the town and Prussion brutality reveals itself in a number of vivid scenes. “The horrors of German occupation are shown, chiefly as they affect the persons in the play, the Girl and the Disturber, who become companions in misery. There is a great deal of detail, both of actual fighting and of play plot, and finally the boy, whom the Girl had left for dead on the battlefield, enters the village disguised in the uniform of a Prussian officer and finds his sweetheart, who escapes with him from the clutches of a Prussian officer to a garret room, where a struggle that has all the thrill of melodrama takes place. But this little clash of individuals is not long continued. Soon the French troops retake the town and more of the action of real war is seen. “The conclusion shows the characters of the play, lovers reunited, on a furlough, and as they are dining American troops pass outside. The Stars and Stripes enter — and at the very end ultimate victory for the Allies is symbolically forecast” The last sentence refers to Griffith’s screen prediction of the Armistice, one year before it happened.
The production of Hearts of the World began as a result of the exhibition in England of Intolerance. Like Intolerance, and like The Birth of a Nation, it was privately produced by Griffith, and was made in entire independence of the American film industry. Griffith sailed for England on March 17, 1917. Several weeks later, when Intolerance was privately shown at Buckingham Palace to the King, the Queen and the Royal Family, the overnight became the toast of the British public and the lion of all London. He had brought the cinema, a cultured revolution and a gift of the American democracy, from the New World to the mother-country, in the hour of the mother’s need; he became, therefore, an object of admiration, curiosity and esteem unlimited. At the London premiere at the Drury Lane Theatre, he was invited to the box of the Dowager Queen, Alexandra, who invited him to spend a week-end at Windsor Palace. Griffith recalls that he did not go, because he was already too busy conferring with England’s leaders.
Griffith, at a party given in his honour at the Duchess of Devonshire’s, was formally presented to such notables as Lloyd George, Winston Churchiil, Lord Beaverbrook, Asquith, the Earl of Derby and others. Here he learned that his name already had been proposed by the literary giants of England—Shaw, Barrie, Wells, Bennett, Galsworthy, Chesterton and others—in a conference with Lloyd George on ways and means of bolstering public morale, had so long played. This was the second major American film — The Birth of a Nation (under its original title, The Clansman) having been the first, the premiere of which was held, not in New York City, but in Los Angeles. On April 2, the New York “Times” featured front-page headlines: LONDON ANNOUNCES THAT AMERICAN FORCES ARE READY. On Thursday, April 4, the “Times” headlines read, in part: GERMANS LAUNCH HEAVY GAS ATTACK AT AMERICAN TROOPS. The same night, America’s answer came to the gas attack: Hearts of the World opened at the 44th Street Theatre, New York City. The management of this distinguished, so-called legitimate theatre had previously announced that the premiere would be a “private invitation” presentation … for prominent officials of the United States and the Allied Governments, municipal and State officials, and prominent citizens” (N. Y “Times”, April 1, 1918).
According to Charles Edward Hastings, in his press-book biography of Griffiths the following notable persons were among the guests at the New York City premiere : “Ambassador James W. Gerard, Mr. and Mrs. Charles B. Alexander, Mrs. Arthur Scott Burden, Otto Kahn, Adolph Ochs, Mr. and Mrs. H. J. Whigham, Mr. and Mrs. W. Bourke Cochrane, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Hastings, Enrico Caruso, Admiral Nathaniel Usher and staff, Mr. and Mrs. Henry G. Gray, Mrs. Parker Beacon, Maj.-Gen. William A. Mann, Mr. and Mrs. David Belasco, Mr. and Mrs. Conde Nast, Mr. and Mrs. Robert J. Collier, James Montgomery Flagg, Gatti-Casazza, Mr. and Mrs. George F. Baker, Jr., Mr. and Mrs. James A. Burden, Miss Ruth Twombly, Miss Harriet Post, Marquis and Marchioness Aberdeen, Mrs. May Wilson Preston, John Moffat, Mr. and Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, Edward Ziegler, Pasquale Amato, E. H. Sothern, Julia Marlowe, Rennold Wolf, Edgar Selwyn, Carl Laemmle, Jesse L. Lasky, Adolph Zukor, Daniel Frohman, Mrs. Morris Gest, George M. Cohan, Marshall Neilan, William Elliott, Florenz White, F. Ray Comstock and Madame Alda.
“The representatives of the British and Canadian Governments and British and Canadian Army and Navy officers included: Major Norman Thwaites, M.C.O.; Consul – General Bailey and staff; Henry Goode and Geoffrey Butler and staff; Commander Blackwood, R.N.; Provost Marshal Colonel Hunter; Colonel Gifford and staff; Sir Connop Guthrie and staff; Major Brooman White, Capt. V. H. McWilliam, Capt MacDonald, Lieut. Sharp, John McKenna Lawson, Lieut. Chevalier, Lieut. W. P. Mclvor, Lieut. -Col. C. A. Warren, Lieut. G. Sherries, Capt. W. E. Brown, Colonel J. S. Dennis, Capt. Sise, Lieut. Grossmith and Lieut. Cresswell”.
Douglas Fairbanks also was in the audience, but was so moved and stirred that he had to leave after the first half. The New York premiere of Hearts of the World was the most important one held to date for any motion picture. It marked the beginning also of the use of the distinguished 44th Street Theatre, of theatrical history, for the initial exhibition of important films. Here the film ran, accompanied by a large symphony orchestra, twice daily, at scheduled performances, 2.15 and 8.15 p.m., at admission prices not exceeding $ 1 for matinees or $ 1.50 for evening performances. It played at the 44th Street until October 5: on the 6th it moved over to another so-called legitimate theatre, the Knickerbocker, also located in the Times Square district, where the same prices and the same schedule continued. On October 21, accompanied by another symphony orchestra, the film began a simultaneous first-run engagement at the Standard Theatre at 90th Street and Broadway, at scheduled performances, twice daily, and at the same admission prices as at the Knickerbocker, for two weeks only. It ended its initial run at the Knickerbocker and the Standard simultaneously, with the evening show on Saturday, November 2, 1918.
The total record for the first run of Hearts of the World from April 4, until November 2, is as follows: 33 consecutive weeks, of which 27 weeks were spent at the 44th Street Theatre, 4 weeks at the Knickerbocker and 2 weeks (simultaneously) at the Standard. Thus the 33-week first-run fell short of that of The Birth of a Nation, but exceeded that of Intolerance;, either way, by 11 weeks. Paine gives glimpses of its phenomenal popularity. On the night after the invitational premiere at the 44th Street, when the theatre was opened to the public, he relates “seats sold by speculators brought as high as five and ten dollars. There were long runs everywhere. In Pittsburgh, the picture broke all records for any theatrical attraction in that city”. Exhibitors who recall the past still refer to the Pittsburgh run of Hearts of the World as one of the truly golden moments of American box-office history.
In 1919, after its temporary withdrawal from the screens, due to the cessation of hostilities and the over-night rejection by the public of war themes, Griffith brought forth a “Peace Edition” of the film, which he distributed with considerable success throughout the nation. It included an epilogue, “visualizing the League of Nations and future world peace” (advertisement and programme-note). The New York “Times” of August 11 wrote that “the spectators applauded its spectacles regardless of their military meaning”. The gross intake of Hearts of the World by 1920 was estimated to be in excess of $5,000,000, representing a profit of about $4,850,000.
In 1931 , the film was revised and re-issued, again with big financial results, by United Artists. Its all-time gross is $7,000,000. The story of the American exhibition of Hearts of the World would scarcely be complete without at least a passing mention of the advertising and exploitation campaign.
This established a new watermark in the technique of motion picture or theatrical publicity.
The newspaper advertisements, preceded by months of mysterious published “hints” and rumours of Griffith’s activities abroad, whipped up interest to a fever pitch. Gigantic horizontal or vertical half-page advertisements in the New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Boston papers exhorted the public in the name of democracy and freedom to see the “Miles of Artillery—March of Legions—Squadrons of Airplanes—Fleets of Zeppelins, the ‘Eyes of the Allies’—The Destruction of Cities—The Charge of the Tanks” and sundry other horrible and horrifying wonders of the First World War, as revealed in Griffith’s new film.
The New York “American” and other leading papers carried spectacular advertisements, featuring photographs of Griffith, helmeted, in the front line trenches. These advertisements, written by Griffith, stressed the twin themes of freedom and democracy. In a particularly sensational one, Griffith indulged in a bit of period showmanship when he announced that the “only ‘supers’ used were German soldiers, prisoners of war, filmed back of the firing line, tickled to death they were in such good hands with D. W. Griffith to direct them”!
Hearts of the World opened on Tuesday, June 25, 19 18, at the Palace Theatre, accompanied by the Palace Orchestra, in London. It was presented by Alfred Butt. The London opening-run ended on Saturday, September 7—exactly, to quote the final advertisement in the London “Times” “… as presented before Their Majesties the King and Queen”.
After the war, Hearts of the World enjoyed extremely successful runs on the Continent, where public interest in war themes did not abate so completely or so quickly as in the United States.
There is no record to hand that it was ever publicly shown in the Soviet Union, but it was privately viewed and studied in later years by the emergent Soviet film directors —Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Dovzhenko, Trauberg, et al. Although each of these directors set new standards of realism, and achieved greater complexity and depth of interpretation than Griffith in depicting the war (although not necessarily therefore greater ultimate truth), the influence of Griffith’s film is evident, nevertheless, in all their works and may be seen in a myriad of images of the classic Soviet films on the First World War.
On War Films and War Propaganda
Hearts of the World was, in effect and in essence, the first real film depicting the First World War.
Although several such films had already been rushed to the screens by the Hollywood companies—J. Stuart Blackton’s The Battle Cry of Peace; Ince’s Civilization; Dixon’s The Fall of a Nation; Empey’s Over the Top; Carl Laemmle’s The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin; Metro’s To Hell with the Kaiser; Warner Brothers’ My Four Years in Germany, etc.—presumably to “cash in” on the war while it was still profitable to do so and at the same time to jump the gun on Griffith, these were of an unusually inferior quality, being incredibly childish or crude, if not wholly incompetent, in the actual depiction of the conflict. Here, on the contrary, was a war film, conceived on a big scale and executed with documentary realism.
The trade envied Griffith’s opportunity; it envied his official sponsorship by the Allied governments; and still more it envied the success of the film itself. Every American film producer knew that only the ending of the conflict, which resulted in the immediate and total loss of public interest in war themes, in November, 1918, had prevented Hearts of the World from being even more successful than it was. Accordingly, the trade studied this film more than any other made to date, except only The Birth of a Nation. Even Hollywood could ill-afford to ignore the new cinematic methods and techniques which Griffith had here brought to the screen. Press comment on it was often more in the nature of news than of criticism or review. “Sometimes one does not know whether what he is seeing is a real war or screen make-believe”, reads an unsigned article-review in the New York “Times”. “The pictures of hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches, the bursting of shells from big guns, the demolition of buildings, the scouting trips and raids into enemy trenches, are impressively realistic”. Proudly, the advertisements claimed “real trenches, real battles; real war scenes, taken amid the fire and smoke of conflict; here are no moving picture ‘supers’, such as one sees in a studio picture, but real, flesh and blood soldiers of France, of England, fighting with their last drop of blood in defence of civilization. . . . No papier mache scenery, no studio ‘props’, no supers, no artificialities of any kind figured in filming this wonderful new Griffith masterpiece. ” These claims were for the most part quite truthful, and so was the general opinion, that the “trench fighting was terribly realistic”, as Lillian Gish put it. In fact, Paine further quotes Miss Gish as stating that when she saw the film again, in 1931, she “thought it better than many of those made to-day. . . . There was more sincerity of intention—more earnest work”. Indeed, Hearts of the World was the first big film of modern war: it was war as only the screen could show it. There were immense battle panoramas, with troop and truck movements, “squadrons of airplanes” and with panel-shots, showing “miles of artillery”, intercut with full screen detail close-ups of the wounded and the dying; there were country-wide vistas, showing the “march of legions” or whole armies locked in combat, intercut, as in The Birth of a Nation, with intimate glimpses of the lives and tragedies of the civilian population behind the lines; there was an arsenal of pictorial effects (“psycho-visual impacts”, to put it in the language of contemporary psychology), achieved through a combination of photography, direction and editing, and counterpointed with, or heightening, the documentary realism, drama and propaganda.
This passionate synthesis of spectacle, love story and documentary came as an antidote to the cheap and hysterical depictions of the war or what Hollywood thought was the war, which were occupying the current screens—forgotten films such as the Laemmle film; the Empey folderol; the Benjamin Chaplin serial, The Son of Democracy; or, worst of all, Cecil B. De Mille’s false and blatantly “super-patriotic” efforts, The Little American and My Own United States, with Arnold Daly. Griffith had demonstrated anew the capacity of the screen to project both history and current events on a high level of creative imagination and ideological interpretation; he had fashioned a new standard or yardstick of art and propaganda. And he had summarized the avowed aim and objective of the war in the very opening subtitle of the film: “God help the nation that begins another war of conquest or meddling”! Inevitably, Hearts of the World became the model for later attempts by the trade to recapture on celluloid the reality and scope of World War I. Its influence on this score is perhaps nowhere more obvious or more traceable than in King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925).
Several years ago, in New York City, I attended a Museum revival of The Big Parade, which I had previously seen many times. Then, in the Spring of 1945, I was privileged to witness, in company of Mr. Griffith and the Gish sisters, a private showing of Hearts of the World, which I had also previously seen, in the projection-room of the University of Southern California. Although I have never considered Hearts of the World among Griffith’s topmost achievements—its story, which often becomes submerged in the war scenes and documentation, has been justly and severely criticized as “weak”, I was nevertheless rather dumfounded to note, after a lapse of many years, the astonishing similarity of Vidor’s scenes of the big American offensive against the Germans, during the climax of The Big Parade, to Griffith’s immense images, in reels five, nine and eleven, of the Anglo-French counter-offensive against the “Hun invaders” (subtitle).
Again, I noted further the striking similarity of the scene in Vidor’s film, in which the American troops are shown from a height, advancing by night in waves across a deforested No-man’s land, to the panoramic and aerial shots in Hearts of the Wirld of the Allied forces advancing, similarly in waves, under aerial protection, on the German-held Mouquet dugout sector, immediately after the subtitle, “The Struggle of Civilization”. I then realized, perhaps for the first time very consciously, that the cine-pictorial pattern of showing World War I on the screen had been established in Hearts of the World for future directors to study and copy as they chose. Vidor had learned well, but Griffith’s treatment was better. Griffith depicted the war on the Western front in many aspects. He remembered to include some of the elected leaders, representatives or spokesmen of the Western democracies. Thus, in the scenes depicting the House of Parliament, August 4, 1914, at 3 p.m., Sir Edward Grey and other British governmental figures are represented; at No. 10, Downing Street, the same date, at 10.55 P-ni., “awaiting Germany’s answer to the ultimatum” (subtitle), are Asquith, Grey, Lloyd George and Winston Churchill; and in the French Chamber of Deputies, the same date at 3 p.m., Rene Viviani, Premier of France and other governmental leaders, are shown on the screen.
Similarly, Griffith also remembered to show the enemy. Immediately after the subtitle: “The German Militarists plan the dastardly blow against France and civilization”, he cuts to a group-shot, followed by several excellent characterization-close ups, of the Kaiser, Ludendorff, Mackensen, Von Moltke, and other members of the German High Command. Nor does he forget the military might of Germany in action. Such subtitles as: “The Shadow. Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, representing War’s ideal of all races and ages, the ruling of weaker nations and people by the Power of Might”, cutting into the Kaiser as the head of the High Command, and again, in review of his troops; “The Prussian hordes massed for the attack”, cutting into immense shots of German infantry and artillery concentrations; “Beneath the risen moon”, cutting into the night-landscapes of death, destruction and terror, after the bombardment; “War’s gift to the common people”, cutting into unforgettable and heart-rending scenes of devastation, ruin and starvation in war-ravaged villages of northern France; “Poison gas”, cutting into shots of the first use of poison gas by the Germans; “Hun trenches”; “The Hun counterattack overwhelms the trench”; “The Germans”, and many others—all barely hint at the content of the related and surrounding images through which Griffith brought home to the American public this burningly vivid composite and comprehensive sum-image of the “Struggle of Civilization”.
The Big Parade seems increasingly with time the poorer for not possessing the equivalent to the stupendous and climatic panel-shots in which Griffith shows the Kaiser’s armies pouring in “never-ending flood” (subtitle) across the highways of Belgium and the horizons of France. This is more than spectacle: it is the very essence and reality and smell of World War I.
I will not, of course, dispute the superior popularity of The Big Parade. Vidor’s film has a more appealing romance, a better story; its characterizations are less typed and are more humanly believable; and it, too, from a cinematic as well as dramatic standpoint, is superbly directed. It is, indeed, a worthy film to have scored the world’s record for the single-theatre run of any motion picture: The Big Parade ran as a two-dollar, two-a-day attraction, beginning in November, 1925, at the Astor Theatre, New York City, for 97 consecutive weeks, thus surpassing the single-theatre runs of both The Birth of a Nation and The Covered Wagon.
Nevertheless, despite these impressive facts and also despite the big scenes of the trucks moving-up and the Americans moving-in, Vidor’s film fails to attain the breadth or scope of Griffith’s teeming 12-reel panorama of burning cities, massed armies, mechanical Armageddon and “miles of artillery”.
For that matter, subsequent films based on World War I fall even shorter of the mark: What Price Glory and All Quiet on the Western Front, to name the two best-known ones, the former noteworthy only for basic mediocrity, the latter only for its novelized story, not for any distinctive merit which it may have been thought to possess as a film. What Price Glory, a compound of sex, slapstick and sticky sentiment, directed by one of Griffith’s earlier actors and first-assistant directors, Raoul Walsh, is almost wholly imitative in its cinematic and directional treatment; and All Quiet on the Western Front, written by Erich Remarque and directed by Lewis Milestone, has been quite objectively appraised by Eisenstein, Theodore Huff, Dwight MacDonald and other critics. Perhaps MacDonald’s comment sums up the others. “Even so absurd a war film as Griffiths Hearts of the World”, he writes, criticizing the story, “contains passages better than anything in All Quiet. I refer to certain panoramic shots, mostly at the beginning of reel five, epic in their sense of mass and distance and God’s-eye-scope. This is pure cinema —a matter of visual values entirely—and this is where Milestone is weakest”.
Need it be added, demonstrable and historic fact that it is, that this also is where most of the rest of the motion picture especially in Hollywood, has long since been weakest ? Finally, the effectiveness of Griffith’s film as propaganda was complete; more than any books, plays or public speeches, it served to bring home to the American people not only the fighting war but the reason for fighting it—namely, the iron necessity of defeating Imperial Germany. For this very reason, when it was revived nationally in 1931, Hearts of the World was laughed at by a new generation of filmgoers, who had been taught to believe that the first World War had been fought in vain, that the United States had been “tricked” into defending France and England, and that the idea of saving such democracy as existed in 1914 among the Western nations was a “fallacy”.
Some twenty-two years after its initial run, it also became a target of attack by political film critics and “historians” who, apparently feared that the new audiences witnessing the revival showings might be turned by it against Germany, after Soviet – Nazi collaboration had begun. Thus it was branded by one such critic as “absurdly exaggerated”, and by a whole coterie of fellow-travellers among the anti-Griffith film critics and self-styled “historians” with similar epithets.
Yet to-day, after the world’s recent and second experience with Germany in the Second World War, nothing in Griffith’s depiction of the “legend of Hunnish crime on the book of God” (subtitle) seems in the least “absurd” or “exaggerated”, as it may have done in the 1920s and ’30s, during an era of disillusionment and pacifism; on the contrary, ironically enough, it begins to appear in our new perspective almost as a generalized and pallid understatement. To-day, in the light of Germany’s gruesome national record of atrocities and mass-murders and sadism in Poland and Norway and Russia; the blitz-bombings of Rotterdam and Coventry and London; the chronicles of horror and cannibalism, rising like a stench from the ashes of Buchenwald and Dachau and the Brown-Houses of Berlin—a record of degeneracy, insanity, murder and terror—to-day, the only thing about the film or its portrayals of the Huns which may seriously be considered as “absurdly frightful” is the frightfully absurd contempt and vilification heaped upon it and upon its maker by the exponents of political ideologies and party-lines. None of this cultural politicalizing need mislead the student, however. The fact is, that the elemental truth about Germany and the First World War is far more closely approximated in Griffith’s thirty-year-old “propaganda film” than in the whole contemporary school of its political traducers. Remember, again: “God help the nation that begins another war of conquest or meddling”! Hearts of the World stands as a permanent and splendid example of the best uses of propaganda to which the screen can be put.
On Acting—New Talent
Hearts of the World brought to the screen some new players and some fine performances by old ones. It marked the screen debut of Ben Alexander, Griffith’s latest ” discovery” in child actors, who later played in Penrod and in All Quiet on the Wester?! Front; also, of Noel Coward, whom Griffith had met in London and who is here seen as a young man with a wheelbarrow and later as a young villager, keeping company with The Little Disturber. (Griffith recalls that Coward seemed to have some good ideas, but that he, Griffith, was too busy to listen much!) In addition, it united the Gish sisters in their first important film together since Home, Sweet Home (1913. See Griffith Index: Part I, p. 18).
On Acting—Dorothy Gish
Unquestionably, the acting honours go to Dorothy in a short black wig as The Little Disturber. With her perky, comic and flip performance, she ran away with the picture and created a role that was long remembered. This was also something of an achievement for Griffith, who had long been criticized for failing in “humour”. Yet the conception and direction of The Little Disturber were entirely his. The use of many clever gestures and trick “business”, all in a few feet at a time; Dorothy’s jaunty strut or walk; the self-satirical but taunting “sex-appeal” of her mannerisms and postures; and the comic scenes to the strains of Anna Held’s old “hit”, Its Delightful to be Married—all this stamped Griffith as a comedy director of genuine promise, and Dorothy as a comedy virtuouso. Griffith was encouraged by it in later years to try his hand again at conceiving comedy roles and even at directing feature-length film comedies (Sally of the Sawdust, etc.). Dorothy, on her part, unwittingly created a vogue among American girls of the period to cultivate in their lighter moments the jaunty walk or strut of The Little Disturber.
The effect of this incidental and probably unexpected success was to start Dorothy Gish off in her own “starring” films—the celebrated “Black Wig” comedy series of the early I920’s.
On Acting—Erich von Stroheim
But all these players together, and the best of their work, do not rate in value with the appearance here of a relatively new, unexpected actor of stellar importance—Erich von Stroheim. Stroheim began his screen career, it may be recalled, in 1915, as a technical adviser to Griffith on military detail in the filming of Old Heidelberg for Triangle. (See Griffith Index: Part II (b), p. 5). The intelligence and talent of this gifted future writer-director were quickly recognized by Griffith; and even beyond this, his potentiality as “acting material”—or, more properly for the screen, as a “player”, was clearly perceived by the old master’s phenomenal “casting eye”. Accordingly, Stroheim was given his first screen role as one of the “Pharisees” in the Judean storv of Intolerance. (See Griffith Index: Part II (c). Now one year later, he was cast by Griffith in a role which quite literally created and shaped the whole course of Stroheim’s career: that of a Prussian officer in charge of German headquarters on the Western front.
Combining military arrogance and sex appeal, Stroheim created a sensation. He became known to the American public as the “man you love to hate”. It was the real beginning of his acting career; and it was also the beginning of a new type of role, which Stroheim alone with his face and personality could fill, and which he was destined to play again and again years later in other films. The final perfection of his “Prussian officer” in Hearts of the World may be seen in Grand Illusion, where Stroheim again appears in the role of the same type of German officer in charge of a military prison. He is the one Griffith “discovery” and actor whose career and casting have come down virtually intact as Griffith created them to our own time, a phenomenon in film history.
On the Stage
Once again, as in The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, so here Griffith proved the superiority of the screen to the stage in projecting history, news, realism and spectacle. Stage plays based on the war were feeble and few and were almost wholly unconvincing. The medium of the stage, resting as it does on dialogue, is physically inadequate to deal with war as a subject, and the most that any playwright can hope to achieve is to have his characters talk about war—emotionally and with the accepted standardized vocal inflections or intonations of the Broadway theatre. But he cannot show the war nor can he heighten such drama as he may create with either images or documentation.
Although it excited and thrilled people in 19 18, and was a tremendous success both during its original run and for some years afterwards, the fact is, that Hearts of the World does not stand the test of time, except in the battle panoramas, as do some of Griffith’s other famous films. On the contrary, it seems to-day a rather uneven film. Why ? There are several reasons:
First, it seems certain that Griffith was too close to the war really to grasp or understand it, least of all to view it in its proper perspective. Remember that fifty years had elapsed between Appommattox (the end of the American Civil War) and the initial appearance of The Birth of a Nation—a circumstance which accounts in part for the singular detachment, objectivity and perspective which characterize the historical sequences of this film. Here, on the contrary, the director was not only close to a great war, but in it. How was it possible to achieve under the circumstances a “proper perspective” ?
For that matter, this was true of most American war films. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1920) was an essentially romantic story with .the war-years as a background and with little in it of the war itself. The Big Parade came seven years after the Armistice yet, although it was a superb spectacle, it offers nothing by way of a perspective on the conflict deeper than Griffith’s film. And Griffith had the added disadvantage of being carried away—the inevitable price one pays for patriotism or uncritical devotion to any cause, however “noble”—by the confusion, emotions and fears of the period. No one really knew what was going on and it is extremely doubtful that Griffith himself knew all the horrors of war at this time, least of all what started the war. Hence, his preoccupation with “lovers” instead of soldiers and the forces behind them. Yet it is only just to record that Griffith can hardly be blamed for the deficiencies of this film since nobody knew anything then.
Second, as already stated, the story is weak. Toward the end it even lapses into conventional melodrama. Yet there are some extraordinary scenes in the picture, and it is worth while for the record to recall them. We have already mentioned the girl’s mad wandering over the battle ground with the bridal dress in her arms (was there a Freudian meaning to this, intended or otherwise ?) Besides this, there were the children burying their mother (immediately related to the subtitle: “Cannon fire their only requiem”) — a terrific scene; the tender love scenes (“For ever and ever”); the famous attic scene in which the boy and the girl, facing imminent death in the German attack on the village, marry themselves; the seduction scene in which Lillian Gish is pulled by Siegmann along the floor while the blind violinist plays – an action and situation used again by Stroheim in The Merry Widow; the famous scene of the refugees in the ruined church, with mothers nursing their children, while the nuns make the sign of the cross over the screaming half-dead—realism in what is now termed the documentary mode; the still-effects of high government officials waiting (impersonations of Churchill, Lloyd George, etc.), which were precisely the device and technique used fifteen years later by Dovzhenko in Arsenal and, finally, too many strangely-haunting scenes both of the war and of the story itself to be enumerated. . . . All these things may be mentioned as balancing or offsetting the weaker side of the story. For it must be repeated that despite the remarkable effect and power of these sequences and scenes, individually the story as a whole is weak.
Third, Hearts of the World was made in so many places (France, England and California), under so many conditions that were difficult at best and more often than not impossible or uncontrollable, that the film as a whole did not exactly “jell”. However, it must be emphasized as Lillian Gish has already noted, that it was sincerely felt by those who made it, and in the confusion of the period, it was soul-stirring to say the least.
Fourth, Hearts of the World is a transitional, even an experimental film. Bitzer later often related that many new things were tried out in it—all kinds of new lighting and photographic effects, as in the night scenes with lights (the Boy, returning from the battlefield, etc.); all sorts of interior lighting both for close-ups and sets; an extensive use of tinting—purple, for the twilight scenes; rose-and-blue mixed tints for early morning; green and yellow alternately for the Germans and so on.
Furthermore, although there is not exactly the soft focus of Broken Blossoms in any scenes, there is a movement in that direction along with many other kindred strange effects and lightings. Indeed, one of the more significant events which occurred during the production was that a young new cameraman, Hendrik Sartov, who had been a still photographer back in the States, was picked up over there, and it was he, not Bitzer, who did the soft-focus in Broken Blossoms.
The summation could go on indefinitely to include references to the air-shots of the battlefields, several of which are notable for imagination and skill in handling; the time-lapses through such cinematically “modern” devices as “cuts”, dissolves or time-fades, as the case may be, from new into old boots or new into rusted guns; or to some of the real poetry in the picture. The above, however, covers most of the important facts and should serve to recall the far-reaching and experimental importance of this immense film.
Even for Lillian Gish, this was a transitional film—a transitional role, somewhere between the straight heroine of The Birth of a Nation and the tragic creature of Broken Blossoms. She tries many new effects here, some of them, perhaps, not successful, but all of them indicating an attempt to experiment with new methods of pantomimic expression and new screen-playing techniques. In short, Hearts of the World, viewed from whatever angle, was a film made for a time and a purpose—a time of war and a purpose of propaganda. As such, it succeeded admirably then, and even if to-day it may not seem so great as some of Griffith’s other films, it is worth remembering its large importance, its influence both as film and as propaganda, and then the outstanding single fact about it—namely, that of this film it may be stated that it accomplished its purpose and justified its existence to the hilt. But in film history also it revealed itself in a quite startling and unexpected fashion. This can best be grasped by glancing at the music. Hearts of the World was the first important Griffith film the musical score to which included excerpts from popular “numbers” or songs of the day. The Anna Held “hit,” It’s Delightful to be Married, has already been mentioned and to it may be added the various strains taken from Chit Chin Chow and other vastly popular musical comedies of the war-years.
It may be recorded as an objective fact that although Griffith was yet to make films far superior to Hearts of the World and of the first order of magnitude, nevertheless this initial concession to mass-entertainment and mass-taste represents a downward step. Nor was the step unnoticed by the rising titans of the trade. Hearts of the World, like The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, was one of the supreme triumphs of free enterprise in film production. As such, its virtues were carefully studied and its errors coldly appraised by the grim men who watched from the shadows of Broadway. It was a new challenge to them but one which they now felt confident of meeting. For there was no one but Griffith to oppose them, the so-called intellectuals of America still being wedded body and soul to the genteel and snobbish traditions of the so-called legitimate theatre. Yet even Griffith, mighty force that he was, could not alone or indefinitely withstand the massed attack gathering among the magnates who were working to create a monopoly through the medium of films over the minds and hearts of the world.