“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.”
—D.W. Griffith, quoted in Photoplay magazine
The soldiers couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw the two girls—sylphlike belles swaddled in long coats, headed on a train towards no-man’s-land. One can imagine the battle-weary young men on their way to or from the trenches rubbing their eyes, thinking that the girls were some sort of mirage. Civilian women didn’t go to the front. Hell, even trained nurses didn’t go to the front. It simply wasn’t done.
And yet, there they were: Lillian and Dorothy Gish, accompanied by their mother, hurtling into the belly of a blighted war zone in France. They traveled to a ruined village, within range of bombardments from German long-distance guns. Brought over by that great general D.W. Griffith, the sisters had been drafted to star in his next picture, a WWI drama which would be called Hearts of the World, once its narrative took shape.
Hardly any of the footage captured in France actually appears in the final film. Yet, what Dorothy and Lillian saw and heard there—and in England, during air raids that riddled the civilian population, crushing schools full of kindergarteners before the sisters’ eyes—haunted them. In her autobiography, Lillian shared a vivid snapshot of the kind of devastation she witnessed on a daily basis: “I remember the odd feeling I had seeing a coffee pot perched on top of a pile of rubble, the sole evidence that a house had once stood on the spot.”
This shot of real town in France was included in Hearts of the World.
And let me reiterate: few surviving civilians came closer to WWI than Griffith and his crew. Even hardened war correspondents weren’t allowed such comprehensive access to the horrors of the front. The psychological impact of the sisters’ proximity to death and destruction added a shade of genuine trauma to their intense performances… even though those performances were safely captured in California.
Now, it’s tempting to dismiss Hearts of the World as The Birth of a Nation II: This Time We’ll Only Offend the Germans. The plot certainly bears a resemblance to Griffith’s infamous Civil War epic. In an idyllic French village, Marie and Douglas, both children of American families, are torn apart by WWI.
While Douglas goes to the trenches, Marie stays in the village. On the day that had been set for their wedding, a heavy bombardment all but razes the town and the French are defeated; Marie happens across Douglas’s unconscious body, faints, and believes him dead. When the Germans occupy the town, the beastly Hun in charge takes a shine to Marie. Will the Allies liberate the village in time to save Marie from The Fate Worse Than Death?
Although clearly not the heroine, Dorothy Gish’s supporting character soundly “stole the show,” even in Lillian’s words. She stands out as one of the few sexually aggressive and sympathetic women in Griffith’s oeuvre.
Playing a wandering lady minstrel, “the Little Disturber,” Dorothy exudes a free-spirited vitality and a quirky, Chaplinesque sensuality. In contrast to Marie’s goose-tending, rose-caressing demureness, the Little Disturber behaves with delicious impropriety.
She corners the man she likes (Douglas, Marie’s fiancé) and plants a kiss on the reluctant fellow right in a public street! Afterwards, when she returns in despair to a man she’d previously rejected, the Disturber flashes the new object of her affections with a look of such hostile amorousness that he cringes, unsure whether she’s going to smooch him or wallop him!
With her cute pageboy haircut and independent attitude, the Little Disturber no doubt resonated with the young women in the audience who had borne the brunt of the home front war effort and would shortly claim their right to vote—and bob their hair.
The fact that Dorothy copied her wiggly, zigzag walk from a streetwalker she saw in London speaks volumes about the endearing, working-girl vulgarity of the character’s persona. As she recounted to Kevin Brownlow:
“Griffith suddenly said, ‘Watch that!’ I saw she [the prostitute] had the darndest walk. And the way I walk in Hearts of the World is exactly the way that girl in the Strand was walking.”
Dorothy Gish keeps the spark of humor and hope alive even in the darkest moments of the film. Her Little Disturber demonstrates how the tribulations of war actually bring out the deepest virtues of certain individuals. Once frivolous and flighty, she nurses Marie, her former rival, back to health.
Moreover, at the suspenseful climax of Hearts of the World, it’s not the hero who saves Marie, but rather the resourceful Little Disturber. With one well-placed hand grenade, she obliterates the whole pack of wicked Huns about to break down the door and capture Marie and Douglas.
Her feisty resistance interjects some unexpected humor into a scene where, when a collaborator catches her in the act of mourning for the French, wiping her tears with a tablecloth, the Disturber chases the traitor away with a broken champagne bottle!
Joie de vivre: the Little Disturber abides with a song in her heart
The Gish sisters’ interpretations complement each other beautifully. They were, by this time, veterans of the Seventh Art, and the scenes between them have all the delicate, practically invisible mastery of a well-sung bel canto duet. In one funny, poignant scene during the occupation, the Disturber finds Marie’s picture keepsake of Douglas and starts kissing it. Marie walks in and sees her. Their reactions—sheepishness on the Disturber’s part and tactful understanding on Marie’s—communicate a new bond between the two characters, a relationship all the more exquisite because it’s so surprising. Even such different women can become spiritual sisters through kindness and compassion.
Lillian Gish teases all possible nuances out of Marie’s character, bringing a feverish, trapped quality to an otherwise routine fragile-but-unbroken role. You can discern the strains of harrowing, gritty fear that she would exhibit so thrillingly in Broken Blossoms. She traces her character arc from an ordinary, loving girl to a total emotional wreck back to an ordinary, loving girl with sweet simplicity. For instance, as she folds her unused wedding dress and puts it in a chest, she does so with all the tactile tenderness of a mother burying her only child.
Later, as she totters across blasted fields in search of her fiancé, the floating lack of purpose in her movements translates her psychotic break even when we see her in an extreme long shot. This is a woman who has been emptied of all grief, all pain, all hope; she is almost a ghost.
In a 1918 interview, Lillian remembered, “I saw one woman whose little brood of three had been torn to pieces by German nitroglycerin. She wasn’t crying. She wasn’t saying anything. But if there is a hell I saw it in the depths of her dry, sunken eyes. If I could reproduce that look on the screen they would call me greater than Bernhardt. And if I did I should go insane.” Well, she came pretty darn close.
With material that might’ve come from a bad 19th century melodrama, Lillian gives us a performance of madness worthy of Ophelia.
All in all, Hearts of the World strikes me as both a throwback and a strikingly modern portrait of the first total war. Part pro-American propaganda, part anti-war drama, the film cobbles together footage from a striking range of sources—staged battles shot in England, real ruins shot in France, smuggled footage of the German army, and, overwhelmingly, scenes filmed on converted sets and stages in Hollywood left over from Intolerance.
A French village… shot in England. The boy with the wheelbarrow is none other than Noël Coward in his first film role. No joke!
Real footage taken at the front… behind German lines!
Hearts of the World pushes the reconstructive possibilities of editing to a logical extreme—even more so than Intolerance, I would argue. It’s the Kuleshov Effect on steroids: shells fired in France seem to “land” in California.
However, the film was misleadingly marketed as mostly a documentary. This irresponsible advertising—combined with its graphic content—makes it another blot on Griffith’s checkered record. Perhaps that’s why the film remains so commercially ignored and elusive; I had to watch it on an old VHS cassette and get my screenshots from a documentary about Griffith. Which is ironic, considering that Hearts of the World smashed box office records among an American public that wanted to savor the Hun-bashing glory of their entry into the fray.
Oh, and that VHS cassette even neglected to include the most infamous scene—“The Dungeon of Lust,” in which two lascivious German officers abduct and assault a peasant girl. (Did I mention that Erich von Stroheim chewed some of his first scenery in this?)
Stroheim menacing a maiden…
…And Stroheim menacing an extra, while serving as Griffith’s military advisor for the film
Prepare yourself for opulent German orgies and gratuitous scenes of Lillian Gish being beaten by a hulking officer because she can’t pick up a sack of potatoes bigger than she is. You will see primitive, prejudice-nourishing panoramas of kink—that were disgustingly presented as Gospel truth.
If you cannot quite bring yourself to forgive Griffith for such exploitation of the medium and its persuasive power, you’re not the only one. As Lillian Gish observed, “I don’t believe that Mr. Griffith ever forgave himself for making Hearts of the World. ‘War is a villain,’ he repeated, ‘not any particular people.’”
Beyond question, Griffith hated war. And particularly World War I. He opposed American intervention from the start, and Lillian Gish described him openly weeping at civilian casualties. If he succumbed to the flattery of European governments and the pressure to produce a biased film, he nevertheless betrays his loathing for the inhumanity of it all.
Griffith’s distaste for violence reveals itself in his implication that World War I reminded him of a predictably directed movie, a mass of clichés. War, indeed, reduces the hearts of the world to just so many figures, formations, legers, plot devices. Other than the high-stakes chess players in their offices, we all turn into bit players, extras in a gaudy global production.
The death scenes of both Marie’s mother and her father agonizingly etch the human toll of World War I onto the screen.
This shot of her father’s dismembered corpse, reduced from a lovable individual to a pile of rubbish, translates the appalling meaninglessness of death in a vast conflict. Griffith illuminates both macro horror of war—the numb, dumb pointlessness of this death—and the smaller-scale ugliness of conflict. The orphaned little boys burying their parent under the floor tiles. The young girl unable to tear herself away from her mother’s body. The broken, shattered skeleton of a garden wall where roses once bloomed. As Griffith said to Lillian, “This is what war is. Not the parades and conference tables—but children killed, lives destroyed.”
Cinematography by hardened war cameraman Alfred Machin, in addition to more lyrical footage taken by Griffith’s cameraman Billy Bitzer, contributes to the deliberately uneven, deglamorized portrayal of modern warfare.
Despite its upbeat denouement, Hearts of World is perhaps not a film with a message, but rather a query to send into the universe. The film’s intertitle prologue best articulates it, wondering, “After all, does war solve any question?”
World War I certainly didn’t solve it. Which is why there was the inevitable sequel. And we still do not have the answer. Although it’s not the coherent masterpiece that The Big Parade or Journey’s End turned out to be, Hearts of the World at least dared to ask the question, “What’s the purpose of all this carnage?” with words, images, and, thanks to the Gish sisters, searing performances.