Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Lloyd George knew The Father… Hearts of the World (1918), BFI with John Sweeney

It was time to get involved and the man who had essayed so emphatically on the nature of nationhood and the need to fight for tolerance, was the obvious choice. I was braced for the worst after skimming some received wisdom but, you know what, this was a film relatively without artifice: propaganda straight from the heart which was genuinely engaging and packed full of passionate performances from DW’s first team.

The battlefield sequences were stunning and reminded me of the glimpses of actual conflict in Malins and McDowell’s Battle of the Somme. The sequences were shot mostly in 1917 on Salisbury Plain using forces already entering their fourth year of fighting and as with the soldiers in Gance’s J’Accuse some of these men would have returned to the front and never come home again.

The battle scenes were mostly filmed in Britain
Billy Bitzer does his usual top-notch job and there was also a contribution from Alfred Machin (director of the ground-breaking Damn the War) for some of the French sequences (Herr Bitzer being less than welcomed in this particular theatre...).

Machin filmed the French trenches
Lillian Gish later said that Griffith was ashamed of the film and his demonisation of the Germans – he hated war itself and not the combatants - but, is there a figure here as caricatured as say Silas Lynch in Birth of a Nation or Captain Butler in America? This was a story made to order for the state – it was there to serve a purpose and to mobilise civilian sympathies thousands of miles across the Atlantic. Maybe Griffith felt it was too much like taking to arms?

By appointment to Lloyd George
The British government has instigated the project and there’s even a precious introduction showing Prime Minister Lloyd George shaking hands with Griffith on the steps of 10 Downing Street – can you imagine Tony Blair or David Cameron doing the same with Katherine Bigelow?

The Boy and The Girl
Lillian Gish was also to regret making the film (more so than Birth?) and when a member of the isolationist America First Committee during the Second World War, she wrote the apologetic I Made War Propaganda… Let’s not go there Lil… but she is never-the-less excellent in Hearts. It’s easy to forget that this was before she had finished establishing herself. She was excellent in many Biograph shorts, Birth and rocked that cradle really well in Intolerance but only showed her singular fluency with Susie, East, Blossoms and beyond. This film was undoubtedly a major stepping stone on the road to this pre-eminence.

Dorothy disrupts
By the same token, just as Constance Talmadge almost stole the show with sheer comic exuberance in Intolerance, another “younger sister” Dorothy is the stand-out light relief here. Those saucy snippets in Nell Gwyn came rushing back to haunt me as I watched her stomp through her scenes, poking all the boys, winking and pulling faces: happy, energised contortions the mirror of Lillian’s gentle miseries and elegant desperation.

If the 'tache fits... Bobby Harron
A tip of the helmet should also go to Robert Harron, another Griffith regular, who acts as L Gish’s love interest (not that D Gish didn’t try) and the central embodiment of cross-channel courage and fortitude. Mr Harron hardly ever seems to be without a moustache (even in Judith…) but here he wears it well and shows why the director placed such store in his abilities. A sprinkling of Harrons also appear as extras: DW believed in keeping it in the families.

Writing in the mid-seventies, Griffith biographer Edward Wagenknecht said that Hearts “is the hardest of all his major productions to evaluate fairly today” but I’m not sure that’s the case,  especially after last year’s centenary of the Great War but also because the atrocities have never stopped happening and now everything is televised. The terror is with us and we want to believe that good will out and that there is a point in fighting and sacrifice.

The Boy with his brothers
Hearts is about the civilians caught up in conflict and its focus is as much on the non-combatants’ struggle to survive – children, parents, wives and lovers – as the military process. On the latter score, you certainly feel part of a genuine conflict and one that has its own brutal rules of organisation, be it the Allies ebb and flow attack over each trench to the beleaguered village to the large-scale mechanics of the trench and field.

The story is centred in a French village in which two American families have settled. The eldest son of one family, The Boy (Robert), is in love with the daughter of a the other, The Girl (Lillian) with the pastoral peace only occasionally interrupted by the antics of The Little Disturber (Dorothy). Years before the current vogue for the media of “disruption” Dorothy was out there; she could have worked in PR or even marketing...

The three stars
TLD flirts with every living thing, especially The Boy, but he’s only really got eyes for The Girl. The Gishes boss the film with their charisma and evident deep preparation. Lillian and DW gave Dorothy a walk they’d spotted for her character - nothing is left to chance with acting crafted from the feet upwards. Further proof of that is in evidence with Lilian’s physicality in True Heart Susie but here she is not only holding herself differently she is more fuller faced and, for want of a better word, womanly: how did she do that!?

War comes and there’s a reconstructed session at the (Hollywood) Houses of Parliament as the fateful days wind down to kick off when the action shifts to France as the community’s world is ripped apart, The Boy joins the army and the Germans steamroller through Belgium across Northern France and into the Village.

Has the Boy been lost?
Who will survive? The film is smart enough to balance the causalities… there is an especially horrific death for The Boy's father - and leaves us in hope and fear right until the end.

The Hun and The Girl
The Germans… I’ve seen worse (cinematically) and the presence of an immaculate Erich von Stroheim adds a touch of authenticity: the right clothes, carriage and demeanour. The chief officer is called Von Strohm (George Seigmann) which is slightly confusing... he is horrible.

The Brits… in addition to the PM and his Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, a host of London’s aristo agreed to appear as extras in the film as well other notables. How many films can carry the credit: Noël Coward as The Man with the Wheelbarrow?

Noel skilfully avoiding typecasting with his wheelbarrow...
The narrative is well paced and winds up to the usual multi-tracked jeopardy Griffith invented/mastered so well: you know what’s happening but you can’t stop being affected by it. Set the controls for the edge of your seat as the Brits are driven back by mustard gas, the French advance is reversed and The Girl and the Boy look doomed as they are trapped between two sets of desperate Huns. The Girl urges The Boy to take her life and his and there seems no way out… can anyone save them?

The Girl loses her mother...
Hearts of the World is over two hours long and yet it fairly zipped along greatly helped by Mr J Sweeney’s tireless improvisations on piano. The film has a rhythm that involves both player and audience and John adeptly plugged into this, inserting so many rewarding textures and lines around the core beats. His enjoyment was transmitted and the select and very well-informed audience responded in kind.

You want a little disturbance!?!
So, in conclusion, a film clearly made on the roll from The Big Two of 15/16 and a more nuanced propaganda piece than even its author felt post production. Hearts was very successful released into the final six months of the war and no doubt helped to bolster support for America’s European intervention: a war that had to be won and could so easily have been lost with or without US intervention.

The film is available but not as it should be. There's no "official" DVD release yet you can see a version on YouTube and the Internet Archive - neither is as good as the print we watched and it deserves better.

No comments:

Post a Comment