Hearts of the World (1918)
Director: D. W. Griffith
Cast: Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Adolph Lestina
Synopsis: Young lovers in a French village are torn apart with the coming of the Great War.
D. W. Griffith’s Hearts of the World begins with a brief prologue in which the audience is shown scenes of the director collecting footage on the Western Front and standing outside No. 10 Downing Street shaking the hand of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Apparently, the British government asked Griffith to make a World War I propaganda movie to persuade America to become directly involved in the conflict at a time when its government was still pursuing a policy of isolationism. The impression given is that Griffith is receiving Lloyd George’s thanks for consenting to the British government’s request, and that the war footage in the movie that follows is authentic. The former may conceivably be true, but the latter definitely isn’t. Billy Bitzer, Griffith’s regular cinematographer was barred from the battlefield because of his German-sounding surname and so the director was forced to use an army cameraman whose footage was ironically considered to be rather dull. Although the film’s promotional material boasted of ‘Battle scenes on the battlefields of France — taken under the auspices of the British government’, the real war, it seems, just wasn’t exciting enough for Hollywood…
Hearts of the World has an odd set-up in that it features a couple of American families living next to one another in a small village in the heart of France. Quite how such an unusual arrangement might have arisen is never explained and treated as something entirely ordinary by the movie. Clearly, it’s a ploy to involve the American public in the movie in a way the filmmakers feared they might not have otherwise been if their story had focused on the effects of the war on a couple of ordinary French families. Strange, how we think of such conceits as a modern phenomenon when it’s clearly been going on for the best part of a century. Anyway, the son (Robert Harron — Intolerance, True Heart Susie) of one family, whose name never appears in the titles but is credited as Douglas Gordon Hamilton in the credits, is an aspiring writer, while the other family’s daughter, Marie (Lillian Gish — The Birth of a Nation, The Unforgiven) has just returned home after an extended absence. The couple meet cute when one of the goslings Marie is cooing over makes a dash for the Hamilton’s garden, and it’s not long before they’re head over heels in love, despite the fact that Douglas is also the object of the insistent affections of ‘The Little Disturber’ (Lillian’s sister, Dorothy — Judith of Bethulia), a drifter who, when she sees that her affections aren’t reciprocated by Douglas, settles instead for local comic relief, Monsieur Cuckoo (Robert Anderson). War clouds are looming, however, and the tranquillity of the little village in which these two couples live is about to be torn apart by the advance of the German army…
Although Griffith was still Hollywood’s foremost director, his best days were behind him when Hearts of the World was made, and his style of storytelling was growing increasingly outdated. Audiences were growing weary of the Victorian values and overbearing sentimentality that dominated his storylines, both of which are in evidence in this movie. There’s no mistaking the irritatingly florid prose of the intertitles as the work of Griffith, either, even though he wrote its scenario under the French pseudonym of M. Gaston de Tolignac, and then claimed credit for the English translation under the name of Captain Victor Marier in an attempt to increase the film’s claims of authenticity. There are no shades of grey with Griffith, his characters are either wholesomely good or despicably bad, and his depiction of the Hun as sadistic, whip-wielding rapists, while perhaps understandable considering the motive behind the picture, is still over the top even by his standards.
Later interviews revealed that Lillian Gish was all too aware of these exaggerations, and her discomfort seems to manifest itself in an unusually half-hearted performance in which she struggles to register the necessary emotions with any conviction. Robert Harron is a bland leading man of little character who never convinces as the object of two women’s affection and seems more suited to secondary roles, and only Dorothy Gish, pulling faces for all she’s worth, brings any life to an otherwise plodding picture which, apart from a well-staged final act, seems to suck the vitality from its every scene. For a director who received such praise for his battle scenes in The Birth of a Nation, Griffith makes a complete hash of the comparable scenes here, and while Hearts of the World has its moments, it fails to come anywhere near to its director’s greatest achievements.
(Reviewed 3rd September 2014)