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Hearts of the World
Remind Me
 Hearts of the World

Hearts of the World

During the winter of 1916-17, director D.W. Griffith was approached by the British War Office Cinematograph Committee to produce a feature about the effects of war on average citizens. The movie, it was hoped, would also be a semi-propaganda film, intended to fuel support in the U.S. and persuade America to go to war. Included in the offer was the understanding that Griffith would have access to troops and battlefields, where he could obtain authentic war footage. "A Romance of the Great War," Griffith heralded the project. But to this day, some questions remain as to exactly how this invitation by the British was issued and how the resulting film, Hearts of the World (1918), came to be made. As Griffith told it, he had traveled to London for the premiere of Intolerance (1916), and the offer had been extended during his stay. Other sources maintain that Griffith was indeed approached by the British before he sailed. But regardless, it's almost certain that Griffith had the basic story for Hearts of the World in mind much earlier. According to his first official biographer, Robert E. Long, Griffith read a December 1915 account of French families driven from their homes by the war and began formulating an idea for a movie soon after, working on it in the evenings after the daytime filming of Intolerance.

Once in England, Griffith made the rounds, meeting with members of the British War Office and conferring with famous writers like H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, who supposedly agreed that his best contribution to the war might be "a drama of humanity photographed in the battle area." Griffith topped off his tour with a visit to 10 Downing Street for a meeting with Prime Minister Lloyd George who reportedly urged Griffith to produce a film that would "make up America's mind to go to war for us." But by the April 7th premiere of Intolerance, the idea of an American aimed propaganda film was rendered superfluous since the U.S. entered the war a day earlier on April 6. Still, Griffith's romanticized meeting with Lloyd George made its way into Hollywood legend and into Hearts of the World. Griffith filmed himself shaking hands with the Prime Minister and used the shot as a prologue to the movie. Subtitles made it appear that Lloyd George was wishing Griffith well as he set forth to make his film.

Questions have also been raised as to just where Griffith filmed Hearts of the World. Though promoted as if it were filmed in the front lines, Griffith was the only member of the crew allowed anywhere near the trenches. Even his usual cameraman, G.W. (full name Johann Gottlob Wilhelm) Bitzer, was refused entry into France because of his very Germanic name. Instead, Griffith was forced to rely on an army issued cameraman for any real life footage he took away. But apparently this attempt was less than successful. Back in the U.S., Griffith paid $16,000 for German army footage from a Captain von Kleinschmidt, a lecturer who had been accused of espionage. In the end, the movie was a composite, with some real war scenes and some staged dramatizations. And for Griffith's purposes, it was probably just as well. On screen, the documentary footage played out less dramatically than Griffith's own interpretation of war. As he later said, "viewed as a drama, the war is in some ways disappointing." The setting was a composite also. Parts of the movie were filmed in England, including the peaceful prewar exteriors. And bits of the war footage from France were inserted into the battle scenes. But a great deal of Hearts of the World was shot in Hollywood, the same lot where Intolerance was made doubling for France. Karl Brown, the cinematographer on Intolerance and second camera operator on Hearts of the World summed up the on-screen mosaic well, saying, "a gun was fired in France and its shell shattered on a wall on the Intolerance lot."

For Hearts of the World, Griffith played up the film's supposed authenticity and its depiction of life in France wherever he could. Even the credits reinforce the international flavor, listing scenario writer M. Gaston de Tolignac and a translation by Captain Victor Marier. Both names were pseudonyms for Griffith. He believed the name M. Gaston de Tolignac lent the film the French credentials it needed, while the credit for Captain Victor Marier suggested that a military expert was consulted. But Griffith did have experts working on Hearts of the World like future director Erich von Stroheim, who had a small role in the film and acted as a military advisor. Von Stroheim had served in the Austro-Hungarian army before emigrating to the U.S. And Griffith had himself racked up enough war experience, spending time in London during the Blitz, to infuse the movie with a certain true-to-life credibility. One instance in particular stands out. While preparing for Hearts of the World, Griffith and his actors came upon a bombed nursery school where close to a hundred children had been killed. The entire party was deeply affected and wept at the scene. Lillian Gish later remembered that Griffith reacted by saying, "this is what war is. Not the parades and the conference tables, but children killed, lives destroyed." So while Griffith may not have spent days in the trenches, he had seen the destructive force of war firsthand. And that, the conveyed sense of horror and fear on the home front, more than anything, made Hearts of the World a powerful drama.

Producer/Director: D.W. Griffith
Screenplay: D.W. Griffith
Cinematography: G.W. Bitzer
Film Editing: James Smith, Rose Smith
Original Music: Carli D. Elinor
Principal Cast: Lillian Gish (Marie Stephenson), Robert Harron (Douglas Gordon Hamilton), Dorothy Gish (The Little Disturber), Valerie Germonprez (Red Cross nurse), Mary Gish (A Refugee Mother). BW-118m.

by Stephanie Thames