Continuing on with the 1001 Films I Apparently Must Watch Before I Die, we hit number 8, with yet another silent film of D.W. Griffith. It’s a bit surreal, actually, because I’m up to 1920 in terms of cinema years, but most of the teens decade has been seen through Griffith’s lens. I suspect that there are a lot of silent films that got axed from the list to make way for the stuff in the more recent decades, but I’m content with the ones I’ve seen so far. Silent films are enjoyable, but they are definitely more demanding on the modern-day viewer.
There is a sense in which perhaps this film is a bit redundant if you’re trying to get a feel for D.W. Griffith as a film-maker. You can get an idea of his melodrama from watching Broken Blossoms; you can get a feel for his epic style from watching Birth of a Nation; and, of course, to get it all in one astoundingly brilliant package, you can watch Intolerance.
But still, Way Down East is a fairly gripping film that stands up on its own, even if the melodrama feels dramatic. It starts with a caption reminding us that the Christian standard of marriage – one man, one woman – was a fairly new phenomenon, but one that is the best for all involved. However, it can be difficult persuading men of this … The caption said it much more poetically than this, of course, but we know straight away that we’re being set up for a tale of a woman who’s going to be abused by a philandering man.
In fact, the word “set up” is probably how I’d define this film. What gives it it’s strength is that it’s constantly setting up things that are going to go wrong later in the film. Thus, even in it’s nicest moments, there’s a constant air of tension in the air, and when things really do go pear-shaped, we’re already sucked right in.
The tale concerns young Anna Moore, played by Lillian Gish, who’s now had a major role in all of the Griffith films I’ve seen. Her mother sends her to visit her rich relatives to beg for some money, and in the process she is seduced into a sham marriage by the womanising Lennox Sanderson. (Who has the awesome caption: “Lennox Sanderson had three passions in life: Ladies, Ladies and LADIES!” I love it.)
We know straight away, that this is going to end in trouble, but Griffith stretches out the romance and the seduction, thus making it all that more devastating when Anna finds out a) she’s not married, b) Lennox is not going to help her out at all with her pregnancy (and one can only imagine how scandalous a 1920s audience would have found all this!).
This is the opening setup, and it’s fairly harrowing, but the story then moves along to show Anna as she takes up residence as a maid with the Bartlett family. The Bartlett family open their arms to her, and I think the scenes of redemption are fantastic as this broken woman (beautifully portrayed by Gish, by the way) for the first time sees life getting better. There might even be some decent romance in her life, from young David Bartlett (portrayed by Richard Barthelmess, who played the Chinaman in Broken Blossoms – this time getting a white role). But Squire Bartlett is a harsh man, offering no forgiveness to those who break the Scriptures, and Anna’s “husband”, the rat Lennox lives nearby and is trying to seduce Bartlett’s niece…
We can tell it’s all going to come to a head, and so the melodrama of it all is relentlessly piled on by Griffith, until it all ends in a climactic scene in a blizzard. I’d love to know how all that was filmed, because it looked quite cold and realistic to me, even all these years later.
In short, your enjoyment of this film will depend on your moral outlook on life (the engine of the whole thing is a rather strict reading of Christian teachings on marriage) and your ability to cope with silent films and melodrama. But I found it a pretty gripping 2 1/2 hours.
4 out of 5.