Out of the Past: Hearts of the World
[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]
Let’s face it. No matter how much homage we pay (and rightly) to D.W. Griffith as the father of narrative cinema, no matter how many ‘sublime’s and ‘magnificent’s we garnish our appreciations with, The Master made his share of films that, as watched movies, are bummers. The film scholar and the diehard film freak want to see them all, and should. The film programmer has other criteria besides his own curiosity to bear in mind, though. If he wants to bust out of the official-classics repertory of The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm but has seen (and probably has had opportunity to see) nothing else, he proceeds at his and his audience’s peril. The colossal miscalculation of a Dream Street or the choppy turgidity of an America may be the reward for his commendable adventurousness. Now, just incidentally, True Heart Susie and Abraham Lincoln are two titles I’d add to any must-see/must-show list of Griffiths; and having just seen Hearts of the World I’m eager to recommend it as well.
As Alanna Nash wrote in her excellent Take One article on the occasion of Griffith’s centenary, the mysterious rarity of prints may have something to do with the neglect of this, one of Griffith’s finest works. Also, Lillian Gish has recorded that Griffith regretted his propagandistic overkill of German brutality (the British War Ministry acted as semi-official co-producer) and doubtlessly encouraged downplaying the film in later years. Upon actually seeing the movie, one is bewildered at the director’s retrospective slur against himself: although the titles get a bit hysterical and there is a sequence which makes clear—without quite showing—that Erich von Stroheim and a couple brother officers have raped and murdered several French maidens, again and again the action of the film insists upon the fact that there were good, decent-minded Germans caught up in the war just as there were good, decent Frenchmen. One of these intercedes to spare Lillian Gish when her potato-hauling efficiency falls below the optimum level and a guard begins brutalizing her; another speaks up for Justice when an Übermensch gives out with a might-makes-right rationalization. (Trivial surprise: The chief Hun bully named Von Strohm turns out not to be played by Von Stroheim.)
Hearts of the World displays Griffith’s celebrated epic sweep via some purportedly actual trench-warfare scenes, but the director’s sense of space in the battles is surprisingly inchoate—by Griffith standards, at least—and one All Quiet on the Western Front–like conceit, in which opposing armies attack and counterattack over the same terrain, fails to make good on the absurdist payoff Milestone would achieve a dozen years later. The true glories of Hearts of the World are to observed in the privileged intimacy of Griffith’s interpersonal mise-en-scène, in those unimpeachably timeless moments that require no historical defense. Indeed, the first, prewar half of the film is the richer, not the least because that doomed and beautiful boy Robert Harron is permitted so many opportunities as “the poetic youth” to glance round at a world whose tranquility he would scarcely outlive. Harron owns this stretch of the movie, and his utterly natural playing—vis-à-vis the spiritual Lillian Gish, the hilariously, dynamically physical Dorothy, or an equally hilarious Ben Alexander as his adoring younger brother (a lovely relationship Griffith treats with surprising drollery)—manages to lend his “poetic” quality great validity, and make decency immensely likable and reassuring. This is scarcely to denigrate that irreducibly luminous emotional center of Griffith’s finest works, Lillian Gish, who has several moments here when her psychological concentration and the fascinated long-take integrity of Griffith’s mise-en-scène combine to literally awesome effect: her reactions to the death of her mother (prefiguring that extraordinary cascade of conflicting emotions at the parlor door in the 1919 True Heart Susie), and to Harron’s reappearance from somewhere offscreen after he has been presumed dead—an apparition as beautiful as, and even more complex in its effects than, the Little Colonel’s homecoming in The Birth of a Nation.
HEARTS OF THE WORLD (1917-18)
Direction and Scenario: David Wark Griffith. Cinematography: G.W. Bitzer, Alfred Machin, Hendrik Sartov, Karl Brown, D.P. Cooper. Editing: James Smith, Rose Smith.
The players: Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Robert Harron, George Siegmann, Ben Alexander, Erich von Stroheim, Josephine Crowell, Noël Coward.
© 1976 Richard T. Jameson