Two families live next to one another in a French village on the eve of World War I. The Boy in one of the families falls for the only daughter in the other family. As they make preparations for marriage, World War I breaks out, and, although the Boy is American, he feels he should fight for the country in which he lives.
When the French retreat, the village is shelled. The Boy's father and the Girl's mother and grandfather are killed. The Girl, deranged, wanders aimlessly through the battlefield and comes upon the Boy badly wounded and unconscious. She finds her way back to the village where she is nursed back to health by The Little Disturber who had previously been a rival for the Boy's affections. The Boy is carried off by the Red Cross. Von Strohm, a German officer, lusts after the Girl and attempts to rape her, but she narrowly escapes when he is called away by his commanding officer.
Upon his recovery, the Boy, disguised as a German officer, infiltrates the enemy-occupied village, finds the Girl. The two of them are forced to kill a German sergeant who discovers them. Von Strohm finds the dead sergeant and locates the Boy and Girl who are locked in an upper room at the inn. It is a race against time with the Germans trying to break the door down as the French return to retake the village.Lillian Gish as The Girl (Marie Stephenson)
Robert Harron as The Boy (Douglas Gordon Hamilton)
Dorothy Gish as The Little Disturber
Ben Alexander as The Boy's Littlest Brother
Noël Coward as The Man with the Wheelbarrow/A Villager in the Streets
Sir Edward Grey as Himself (uncredited)1
Anne Harron as A Woman with Daughter (uncredited)
John Harron as A Boy with a Barrel (uncredited)
Mary Harron as A Wounded Girl (uncredited)
Tessie Harron as A Refugee (uncredited)
Lady Lavery as Nurse (uncredited)
Jules Lemontier as A Stretcher Bearer (uncredited)
Adolph Lestina as The Grandfather
David Lloyd George as Himself (uncredited)
Diana Manners as Nurse (uncredited)
René Viviani as Himself (uncredited)1
Erich von Stroheim as A Hun (uncredited)
Francis Marion as The Boys other brother (uncredited)
* Note 1: Appears in archival footage
Lillian Gish, the actress who portrayed 'The Girl', later said:
"Hearts of the World
enjoyed great success until the Armistice when people lost interest in war films. The film inflamed audiences. Its depiction of German brutality bordered on the absurd. Whenever a German came near me, he beat me or kicked me."
She also noted that:
"I don't believe that Mr. Griffith ever forgave himself for making Hearts of the World
. 'War is the villain,' he repeated, 'not any particular people.'"
Some historians have also noted that Hearts of the World and similar films encouraged a 'hysterical hatred' of the enemy which complicated the task of the Versailles peacemakers.
Like many American films of the time, Hearts of the World was subject to cuts by city and state film censorship boards. For example, the Chicago Board of Censors required cuts, in Reel 3, of that part of a bayoneting scene showing closeup of a man's side from which a stream of blood flows, Reel 6, that portion of dancing scene where dancer twirls her skirt and exposes posterior to camera, officer carrying young woman off into other room, six scenes of German officer on floor motioning to young woman to come and lie down beside him, closeup of same German officer reaching up with arms for young woman to come to him, closeup of officer and young woman embracing in bunk, officers forcing young peasant women towards bunks, scene showing young women in bunks with clothing disheveled and hair down and officers walking off and adjusting clothes, and the intertitle "Dungeons of Lust" and scenes of young women lying prostrate following the intertitle.
Hearts of the World is referenced in L. M. Montgomery's novel set during World War I, Rilla of Ingleside. Rilla recalls in her diary, "The heroine was struggling with a horrible German soldier who was trying to drag her away. I knew she had a knife—I had seen her hide it, to have it in readiness—and I couldn't understand why she didn't produce it and finish the brute. I thought she must have forgotten it, and just at the tensest moment of the scene I lost my head altogether. I just stood right up on my feet in that crowded house and shrieked at the top of my voice—'The knife is in your stocking—the knife is in your stocking!'"
A print of the film still exists and is held by the Cohen Media Group. The rights are now held in the public domain.