After making his masterpiece INTOLERANCE (1916), D.W. Griffith was invited by the British government to come to Europe and make a morale-boosting WWI film. He accepted and produced the underrated HEARTS OF THE WORLD, partially filming some its staggering battle scenes on the actual
locations where the war was taking place at the time.
In 1914 France, two American families live next door to each other in a small village. Marie Stephenson (Lillian Gish), the daughter of one of the families, and Douglas Hamilton (Robert Harron), the son of the other family, fall in love and plan to get married, but postpone the wedding when the
Germans invade and war is declared. Douglas volunteers to join the French army and is sent to the trenches just outside of his own village. The French troops put up a fierce fight, but are vastly outnumbered by the Germans, and are forced to retreat. The German bombardment destroys the village and
kills Marie's grandfather and mother, along with Douglas's father. The shell-shocked Marie wanders onto the battlefield and finds Douglas unconscious, but she thinks that he's dead and goes back to the village.
The village is occupied by the Germans, who brutalize its citizens. Douglas's mother dies and her three young sons bury her in the cellar of their house. After recovering from his wounds and being sent back to the front, Douglas sneaks through enemy lines and returns to his village. A German
officer (George Seigmann) tries to rape Marie, but she manages to get away and is rescued by Douglas. A German soldier tries to capture Douglas, but Marie stabs him to death and Douglas then kills several other Germans. French, British, and American forces arrive in the village and successfully
recapture it from the Germans. Douglas is reunited with his younger brothers and after the war, he marries Marie.
Often dismissed as a mere propaganda film designed to convince Americans to enter WWI, HEARTS OF THE WORLD is, in fact, a major D.W. Griffith work that ranks alongside BROKEN BLOSSOMS (1919), WAY DOWN EAST (1920), and ORPHANS OF THE STORM (1922). It's also one of the director's least dated films,
as his usual sentimental streak and penchant for Victorian melodrama is tempered by the universal and timeless antiwar theme and the touching love story between Marie and Douglas. Though slightly overlong, Griffith effectively uses the first quarter of the story to introduce the numerous denizens
of the French village, lovingly sketching in local color and the characters's personalities with such small details as Marie sheltering a flock of geese and Douglas's affection for his playful little brother, both of which, as so often with Griffith, reemerge to pay emotional dividends later in
the film. The impressive large-scale battle scenes are as epic as any ever staged and feature brutally horrific depictions of hand-to-hand combat, stabbings, shellings, and the use of poison gas -- with Griffith making extensive and innovative use of masking effects to create a pre-CinemaScope
widescreen aspect ratio for a number of breathtaking panoramic battlefield shots. The film is also notable for 19-year-old Noel Coward making his screen debut as an extra, and for Erich von Stroheim's scene-stealing portrayal of a despotic, monocle-wearing Hun. Von Stroheim also served as the
film's technical supervisor, which accounts for the convincingly scathing depiction of the German officers, particularly in the hedonistic scene where they have a drunken, decadent party after taking over the French village, a scene which looks and feels like it could have easily come from one of
von Stroheim's own films. (Violence.)
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