irector D.W.Griffith is best
known for 'Birth of a Nation' and 'Intolerance':
his 1918 World War One epic 'Hearts
of the World'
is rarely seen: last week the London Film Festival at the National Film
Theatre presented the first UK screening of a newly restored print with
tinting and the original intertitles. Like most restorations, it comes
from several sources and the print quality is variable, but the best
sections are impressive - very sharp and clear and hardly marked with
the passage of almost 90 years.
The film was
intended as propaganda to bring the USA into the War (though by the
time of its release the USA was in anyway): in the end it is a love
story mixed with anti-war (and of course strong anti-German)
propaganda. It was claimed that much of the film was shot at the front
in France, but in fact only occasional establishing shots of troop
movements and guns firing are genuine, and the actors were (wisely)
kept well away from the conflict.
The story is
in a French village, where an American boy and girl living there fall
in love and become engaged just as the war breaks out. The boy joins
up, and the village is over-run by the Germans, who abuse the women and
force them to work in the fields. The girl, distraught from the
shelling and the death of her parents, wanders to the front and finds
the boy, injured and unconscious, and thinks he is dead. Eventually
they are reunited when the boy, acting as a spy, comes to the still
occupied village. In the end the Germans are driven out by the French
and American forces (a subtitle about the Americas having saved
democracy is I suppose understandable but strikes a jarring note - and
provoked sniggers in an otherwise rapt audience).
well played by Robert Harron, and Lilian Gish (who practically invented
screen acting) gives a stunning performance as the girl - her meeting
with the boy after she thinks he is dead is beautifully and subtly done,
and genuinely moving. She was the first exponent of the 'less is more'
technique of acting: unfortunately most of the rest of the cast tend to
overdo things, still using stage techniques which look exaggerated.
inevitably the portrayal of the Germans is unsubtle (an attempted rape
of the girl by a German sergeant is pure melodrama) and Griffith's
usual tendency to sentimentality is in evidence, the film shows the
horrors of the war honestly and stands up well against the two most
famous WW1 films - Vidor's 'The Big Parade' and Milestone's 'All Quiet
on the Western Front'.
A special mention for the
Neil Brand, who improvised a lyrical and dramatic accompaniment for
two-and-a-half hours, which added considerably to the film's impact.
Roger Wilmut at 8.32AM on November 6th 2006
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