Hearts of the World

Courtesy photo
D.W. Griffith/United States 1918

Hearts of the World is the story of two American families who live next door to each other in a small French village. The unnamed son (Robert Harron) and daughter (Lillian Gish) of the respective families fall in love and – to everyone’s delight – begin arranging their wedding. However, the Germans attack the village on what was meant to be their wedding day. The boy goes off to war, and the girl very nearly loses her sanity along with her family in the rubble of their beloved village.

What follows is an exploration of the human cost of war, both for the soldiers in the trenches and the women left at home to look after the babies and fend off the advances of the occupying soldiers. Griffith makes a film of passion and conviction that refuses to romanticize the war, but some of the plot contrivances are just too coincidental; the hero’s entire battle experience takes place within a day’s walk of his home village.

A 1923 poll of American high-school students listed Hearts of the World as their eighth most favorite film (Rex Ingram’s 1921 film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – starring Rudolph Valentino – topped the poll). So why does this major film by D.W. Griffith languish in obscurity, overshadowed by Birth of a Nation and Intolerance?

To begin with, the film is over three hours long. For contemporary audiences unused to silent films, this is quite a bit to take. While some contemporary audiences are fortunate enough to see silent films at theaters with a musical accompanist (when these films originally premiered, it wasn’t out of the ordinary to have an entire orchestra providing a live soundtrack), more frequently they run either entirely in silence or with a tinny ye-olden-days soundtrack that doesn’t necessarily match the action on screen.

Another reason many contemporary viewers ignore the great silent films is their aversion to the widely held stereotype of cheesy overacting. Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason, and even the luminous Gish isn’t exempt from hand-wringing, fist-to-forehead, chest-grabbing acting clichés.

Finally, Hearts of the World may not have endured simply because of its subject matter: WWI. Compared to the groundbreaking (and notoriously racist) Birth of a Nation or the “Babylonian orgy” sequence in Intolerance, trench warfare just doesn’t have the same appeal. At its release, the film’s publicity blazed that they actually filmed on the Western Front, in trenches 50 yards from the German front lines. Kevin Brownlow, a noted silent film historian, has debunked this claim: Although Griffith spent one day filming in some trenches far from the front lines, virtually none of this grandstanding footage was used in the film.

Hearts of the World turned out to be a powerful recruitment tool for the American armed forces. But in the jingoist tradition of many American films, the depicted French-German war (including one American soldier) turned into a French victory entirely dependent on American intervention. The flags at the victory parade are solely American, and the titles cheer America’s commitment to “freeing the world from autocracy and the horrors of war – we hope for ever and ever.” It takes a silent film to show us that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

© 2006 Sarah Manvel. All rights reserved.

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