Director 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 originally 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 set entirely 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).

The boy is 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.

Though 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 pianist, Neil Brand, who improvised a lyrical and dramatic accompaniment for two-and-a-half hours, which added considerably to the film's impact.

Posted by Roger Wilmut   at 8.32AM on November 6th 2006

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