Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Hearts of the World

"God help the nation that begins another war of conquest or meddling!" So reads the opening title of this rarely-seen but incredibly powerful war drama produced, written and directed by D.W. Griffith in 1918.

The beauty and power of Griffith's moving 1918 anti-war epic is in his focus on the individuals touched by war. Griffith is not so much interested in telling us a story as such, but rather in conveying great themes and ideas through characters who represent good and evil through their actions toward each other. Here, he focuses on Marie Stephenson (played to perfection by Lillian Gish), a French girl in love with an American, Douglas Gordon Hamilton (Robert Harron), an aspring writer living in France with his parents and three younger brothers. Griffith takes his time setting up peaceful, serene shots of the French village, emphasizing the wide array of people, each with their distinct traits. We also meet the "Little Disturber" (a typically feisty Griffith heroine, played very well by Dorothy Gish), who will later play a very important role in the film's climax. There are charming domestic scenes, not unlike those of the Cameron household in "The Birth of a Nation", which emphasizes the importance of home and family to these characters, the destruction of which later on is portrayed in devastating detail.

Marie meets Douglas in his garden one morning, as she is playing with geese wandering around in the back yard. (We see another one of Griffith's favorite visual touches-the female protagonist playing with animals, usually geese or ducks.) The two become romantically involved, and are engaged to be married when war is declared, just after Douglas has received a letter from a publisher interested in his new manuscript. Douglas enlists in the military, however, (a title describes his decision to defend France as "land good enough to live in is good enough to fight for") and in an absolutely heart-wrenching scene, Marie packs up her clothes, including the wedding gown she never got to wear, putting her dreams away. Griffith's emotional manipulation still works very well, because I confess I found myself moved to tears during this scene. It's so effective because of Gish's complete and utter conviction in playing the role. Watching the film, we don't see an actress playing a part. Gish manages to convince us that she, herself, is making these sacrifices. And Harron's beautifully understated performance is one of the finest from this period. He conveys a sadness in his eyes that reminds me of Laurence Olivier's performance in William Wyler's "Carrie" (another film that left me emotionally devastated). His scenes with the younger brothers, especially the youngest-who worships the ground he walks on-are especially moving and even unsettling, because it conveys so well how, if anything were to happen to Harron during the war, it would tear the family apart.

The remainder of the film is handled in a quite interesting manner. Griffith alternates scenes taken at the front, with scenes of the people back home. He is going after no particular narrative drive here, but rather to heighten the emotional intensity and connection with the characters-as-people by focusing in great detail on their lives. There are some particularly devastating shots of the small town being bombed out, with villagers fleeing in panic, and shots of the geese we saw earlier in the film swimming through a lake which erupts with explosions from shells.

At this point, I have to admit I found the film difficult to handle emotionally. I've never been so moved by the depiction of war on-screen as I was by this film, although there are a few moments in other films that have come close. I decided to keep watching, because at this point I was also reminded of just how compelling and gripping Griffith manages to make every one of these characters, so that you quite literally feel that you want to know what happens to them, for better or worse.

Douglas decides to come in to the town to meet with Marie at the local inn. He makes his way through a German trench, disguising himself as a German soldier, and manages to make his way to town.

Griffith does introduce the film's "heavy", a German named Von Strohm, played to perfection by George Siegmann (who surely played some of the most truly vile and despicable villains of the silent screen). Siegmann is a fine actor who brings a genuine sense of menace to his performances. Here, he sets up shop in a local tavern in the village, in which Marie and the "Little Disturber" are both working. Incidentally, it's interesting to point out that Erich von Stroheim delivers a brief but effective performance as Von Strohm's aide. Just in these very brief scenes, Stroheim infuses his character with a very real villainy that would have perhaps been better suited to the Von Strohm character than Siegmann's broad performance.

Douglas arrives at the inn, which is infested with German soldiers and officers looking for him. The "Little Disturber" detains Von Strohm while Marie and Douglas hole up in one of the deserted rooms at the top of the inn after Marie kills a German officer. Von Strohm eventually locates them and is determined to kill them both himself. Here we begin a typical Griffith climax, with a proverbial "ride to the rescue", here represented by the progressing French and British forces moving in to reclaim the town. Marie and Douglas debate whether or not to take their own lives as they are sure death is coming. The troops arrive just in time, however, and the "Little Disturber" saves the two by throwing a grenade into the gathering of German officers right outside the door. With the town now back under the control of the Allies, Marie and Douglas are married.

His film has an immediacy lacking in many war pictures, which is heightened by a short prologue of behind-the-scenes footage of Griffith visiting the trenches, where he shot second unit footage for the film, newsreel-style. It's difficult to imagine any American filmmaker undertaking such a project today. In the prologue, we see Griffith personally shooting scenes in a trench while shells pass overhead. The picture was clearly made for the war effort, and the ending seems to overlook the fact that, despite the temporary glory of reclaiming the town, the impacts of the war will continue to be felt for many decades. We can forgive it's rather overly-optimistic ending, however, because Griffith has laid out his real message of the brutal and horrific effects of fighting on every day people in the preceding two hours of the film.

The film is not discussed as often as Griffith's other major work from this period, falling between the epic "Intolerance" and the sublime "Broken Blossoms", the film's mix of intimate character drama against an epic background is an interesting approach that only heightens its power to move, even close to a century after it was made. It's message is, of course, timeless.

Griffith was an artist the likes of which the cinema has not quite yet seen again. That is because everyone is still, in one way or another, working in his "shadow", so to speak. The models of filmmaking that he perfected, and the grammar of screen language that he gave us, are still so prevalent that it's impossible to fully divorce "contemporary" filmmaking, as it exists now, from what Griffith was doing in 1918. His vision extended beyond the medium itself, launching a fledgling technology into an art form to stand alongside the other arts. "Hearts of the World", a relatively minor Griffith film, compared to his better-known works, is a testament to that vision.

The copy of "Hearts of the World" that I viewed derived from a Killiam Shows print, available on VHS from Republic Pictures Home Video. This copy contains tinting and a nice piano score by William Perry. The restoration was performed by Karl Malkames. This video edition contains the original newsreel prologue, showing Griffith at work in the trenches and meeting with Prime Minister David Lloyd George. While the video itself is out of print, copies can probably still be located online or through independent outlets.

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