Hearts of the World (1918): Battle Dress

hearts“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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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?

dorothyincostumeAlthough 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.

vlcsnap-2013-09-05-23h11m32s232Moreover, 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!

Screen Shot 2013-09-08 at 11.06.44 PMJoie 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.

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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.

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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.

vlcsnap-2013-09-05-23h14m34s7In 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.

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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.

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A French village… shot in England. The boy with the wheelbarrow is none other than Noël Coward in his first film role. No joke!

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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.

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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.

vlcsnap-2013-09-05-23h10m16s235Oh, 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?)

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Stroheim menacing a maiden…

vlcsnap-2013-09-05-23h07m46s21 …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.

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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.’”

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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.

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The death scenes of both Marie’s mother and her father agonizingly etch the human toll of World War I onto the screen.

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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.”

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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.

5 1Despite 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.

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This blog post is part of the Gish Sisters Blogathon, hosted by The Motion Pictures and Movies Silently. Be sure to check out the other entries!

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Letting the Cat out of the Bag: Ulmer’s The Black Cat and World War I

Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) possesses undeniable cult cred in the form of pickled dead wives, sexy Bauhaus sets, and, of course, Lugosi flaying Karloff alive. I cherish it for all these reasons. However, more important, I believe that it’s the first mainstream horror movie to show the link between the “nightmare picture” genre cycle of the 1930s and its aesthetic and emotional origins in World War I.

Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, adaptations of gothic novels, The Black Cat completely abandoned the Poe short story which it misleadingly claims as its source. Instead, the plot of the film revolves around Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) and his quest for revenge against his former comrade-in-arms in the Imperial and Royal Army of Austria-Hungary, Hjalmar Poelzig (played by Boris Karloff, who else?). The film even takes place in an old WWI-rampart-turned-evil-lair, Fort Marmorus, complete with old battle charts and gun turrets!

As Lugosi’s character travels back to the site of such historical carnage, he also undergoes a psychological transformation from civilized doctor to a man ruined by war and hate. At the risk of sounding grandiloquent (too late, but this is Universal Horror!), Werdegast’s pilgrimage is really a voyage to the heart of repressed WWI memories.

Take, for instance, the scene in which Werdegast and the newlyweds (who’ve chosen inexplicably to vacation in rural Austria) are driven from the train station. A shot, taken from the inside of the car, reveals the hood of the old-fashioned vehicle as it proceeds down a long muddy road, sparkling with streams of rain. This image conveys a documentary quality and anticipates the filth and sogginess of the following descriptions of World War I battlefields and trenches.

The driver lugubriously informs his passengers: “This road was built by the Austrian army.” In the low-key lighting and indistinctness of the rainy night, the chauffer, wearing the gaudy, gold-accented livery of the Hotel Hungaria in Gömbös, appears to wear a soldier’s uniform.

Delivering a grim monologue, the driver paints lurid word-portraits of Marmorus during the War, including such disturbing morsels as “the ravine down there was piled twelve-deep with dead and wounded” and, “the little river below was swollen, a red, raging torrent of blood.” 

Rather than cutting to the landscape or a flashback, Ulmer’s camera focuses on the reactions of the passengers. Like a couple at the cinema, slowly finding themselves drawn into the tale, the newlyweds at first hold back laughter then take on increasingly grave expressions. Werdegast, shown in a moodily lit close-up, closes his eyes as if in a trance.

Like a couple in the cinema: a parallel audience, the innocent newlyweds, the Alisons, listen to tales of WWI horrors.

The directorial decision to recount the story of Marmorus in this manner comments powerfully on the significance of such war narratives to modern life. Here, the tales and memories of no-man’s-land acquire the same kind of atmospheric cache as the prerequisite vampire lore or supernatural legends of more conventional horror films. For the Allisons, as for the moviegoers, the brutality of WWI already represents a myth, a treasury of shock-value yarns trotted out by tour guides, but still a collective inheritance of unconscious fears difficult to ignore.

The return to violence: the driver who recounts battle stories goes off the road with our characters in his cab. Note the practically vertical axis: the world of the newlyweds is about to be similarly turned upside-down by their involvement with two traumatized WWI veterans.

Towards the end of the film, the stylized, geometrical designs of the “Dark of the Moon” ceremony scene in The Black Cat echo the landscapes of a WWI no-man’s-land. Poelzig performs his black mass amidst a temple of jagged, irregular shapes, framed by two obelisks and a fan-like backdrop. His pulpit comprises a giant X-shaped complex made up of obliquely angled bars.

This altar closely resembles a “knife rest” or a cruciform barrier used by Great War soldiers in order to deter onslaughts of enemy men from attacking gaps in the trench lines. Many photographs of the WWI show such impromptu ramparts, constructed from a few planks and covered with barbed wire.

Look familiar? WWI barbed wire defenses, X-shaped “knife rests.”

The jutting, irregular trappings of Poelzig’s secret cult room also recall images of the various fences, boards, and charred trees that contributed to the blasted and disorienting appearance of no-man’s-land.

Ulmer carefully supervised the set design, so I think it’s safe to assume the resemblance isn’t gratuitous, especially in light of explicit allusions to the war throughout the film. In the context of the wicked ceremony, Ulmer uses the set to stress the evil of war itself. Blending bizarre intimations of Satanism with WWI iconography, the director underscores the destructive urges of mankind to sacrifice others in the pursuit of illusory and often ridiculous belief systems.

In war as in horror films, the bad guys tend to demand human sacrifices.

However, one scene in particular drives home the relationship between horror and war in a stunningly stylized way, so stunningly that I can hardly believe that more film historians haven’t noticed the formal innovation.

After panicking at the sight of a black cat, Werdegast fails to kill Poelzig. The wife-killing traitor, however, doesn’t retaliate, but rather begins to calmly examine their situation, from off-screen. His tone turns eerily sentimental. Meanwhile, the somber strains of Beethoven’s No. 7 Symphony on the soundtrack reinforce the import of his words.

During this disembodied, voice-over monologue, the camera first tilts upward to take in Werdegast, tense and emotionally broken, before panning and tracking to a door handle which Poelzig opens. The shot roves, continuously save for a few ethereal dissolves, through the military, through the oppressive corridors of the former fort, capturing striking diagonal light-dark contrasts and disquietingly angled beams, and then up a spiral staircase. The series of dissolves really feels like a long take and it probably wanted to be, had the time, budget, and technology made it possible.

…and we return to the two “living dead” men as though we’d been walking with them.

Interestingly, the series of shots follow the path that the audience would expect Werdegast and Poelzig to walk as they return to the less disturbing upstairs of Poelzig’s house. But they’re not in the tracking shots. It’s almost as though they dissolved or disappeared into thin air.

The camera movement in fact substitutes for the movements of the main characters, who, at the end of the sequence, are revealed entering Poelzig’s study. The floating, slow camera movements strike the viewer as following shots, but with the initiators of motion surreally removed, in a strange instance of visual metonymy.

This unorthodox stylistic choice highlights a turning point in the self-awareness of the horror genre, as Poelzig assimilates the survivors and the corpses of World War I. The traitor asks Werdegast,

“Did we not both die here in Marmorus 15 years ago? Are we any the less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead?” 

Here, he equates the real physical horrors of war and the trauma of veterans with the symbolism of the nightmare picture. In the context of the film, the speech makes the connection between the real broken and battered men who returned from the conflict and their screen alter-egos, the monsters and mutilated characters of the 1920s and 1930s. Moreover, the pointed absence of Poelzig and Werdegast from the simultaneous tracking shots affirms the truth of these words. The characters disappear from the shots because their trauma has hollowed them out, reduced them to ghouls. Poelzig and Werdegast’s participation in the Battle of Marmorus has turned both into spiteful, inhuman phantoms, “the living dead.”

Battlefield wreckage? No, Fort Marmorus. It explodes at the end of The Black Cat, with the two veterans inside, like an exorcism of WWI demons.

Film historian David Skal asserts that a French work, Abel Gance’s J’Accuse, released in 1919 and then remade by the director in 1938, was the first film to “face up” to the horror influence of the First World War. He has a point. However, Gance’s two versions were highly lauded anti-war dramas with noted horrific sequences, what would later be called “art films.”

But The Black Cat was a popular horror film, part of a genre not given enough credit then or maybe even now for its meaning-creating potential, that boldly unmasked World War I as the unconscious aesthetic and mythological focus of movie horror. Ulmer’s film alludes to the lineage of the genre, not just the evils of the war itself. Given the surprise popularity of The Black Cat, and of the horror genre during the Depression, perhaps such films allowed audiences to cope with the Great War in retrospect and to grieve subconsciously for those sacrificed to no-man’s-land, the victims of modernity, as well as for the walking wounded.

(This is adapted from a college paper which I wrote about Universal’s horror cycle. Although the thesis contained herein is my own, I did, of course, research the context and the making of the film and benefit from the analyses of others, including David J. Skal and to the documentary Universal Horror, which began to suggest the link between horror and WWI. I will provide my bibliography on request, so please leave a comment if you would like to know more about my resources. Likewise, please do not use my ideas or images without first asking me!)