Friday, April 1, 2016

D.W. Griffith's "Hearts of the World" Revisited

After almost one hundred years, the making of D.W. Griffith's World War I drama Hearts of the World (1918) still is surrounded by mysteries. Griffith made two trips to the front while he was working on this new film, and contemporary publicity reported he and his party worked under extremely dangerous conditions. But as for authenticity most of his frontline scenes were staged in front of the camera in Britain and the United States. Real World War I footage in this film is extremely rare and came from Frank E. Kleinschmidt's film War on Three Fronts (1917) which was edited with much artistic license.

Commissioned by the British government, Griffith started production of this movie shortly after America had entered the First World War. Hearts of the World clearly was a propaganda undertaking, but it also has the 'Griffith touch' and is primarily a love story. Two American families share a house in a peaceful French town. The Boy (Robert Harron) of one family and the Girl (Lillian Gish) of the other have a romance. When war breaks out the Boy joins the army and the Girl puts her wedding dress in a box. Despite heroic resistance from the defenders of the town, they are overcome by the brutal onslaught of the enemy. The village is destroyed by heavy artillery and the Boy's father and the Girl's mother and grandfather are killed.

War on Three Fronts (USA, 1916)

Griffith’s Germans are of course depicted as brutes, as German villains usually were during the war. At one point in the film the Girl’s virginity is even threatened by Von Strohm, the main villain. The actual scene showing the cause for all this mass killing however came from a completely different source and movie: Frank E. Kleinschmidt's War on Three Fronts. In 1916, Kleinschmidt had returned to America with his film showing his experiences in wartime Europe on the eastern, the Italian and the Balkan fronts. Kleinschmidt showed his movie on the West Coast and in the Midwest before it was released by Selznick Pictures in April 1917. Among the footage found by the authors while researching our latest book American Cinematographers in the Great War is a scene showing an Austrian artillery crew firing the latest type of 15-centimeter gun. Filmed by Kleinschmidt with the assistance of the Austro-Hungarian military press office, this scene was taken around Tarnow in May 1915, during the attack of the Austro-German army on the eastern front.

D.W. Griffith in the trenches on the western front, 1917

Kleinschmidt's film was later bought by Griffith and this key scene was edited into Hearts of the World, but now the Austrian gunners are introduced as savage German soldiers out to destroy the peaceful French village with everyone in it. Despite the way it was used, it is one of the few authentic World War I scenes in Griffith's classic film.

A video showing both the original scene filmed by Kleinschmidt and the edit done three years later by Griffith has been uploaded on our YouTube channel.


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