D.W. Griffith’s Morality Tale, ‘Way Down East’, has One of the Greatest Movie Finalés, Ever

D.W. Griffith can be accused of many things — except of being an underachiever. In the days when films were just a rudimentary form of entertainment, he always aimed for the stars in a series of projects than can only be called epic. His stories often sprawl across decades, generations and even centuries, his characters transcended the barriers of time and societal standards. The one flaw in his films — for specific ideological reasons — might be that they often convey a sense of outdated morality; an ethos that comes off looking as chauvinistic, retrograde and even racist.

That said, it’s still absolutely admirable to see that when some of his fellow filmmakers were just filming plays or slapstick sketches, Griffith wanted the world to hear what he had to say. He was one of the first filmmakers — if not the very first — to fully grasp that movies had to be something more than just entertainment. His films, then, aren’t only ambitious on a visual scale, they are even more so because of the themes they cover.

In Way Down East Griffith explored the sanctity of monogamy and how straying from it could only lead to tragedy. “Since the beginning of time man has been polygamous” establishes the first title card shown onscreen, before it goes on a rant about the holiness of monogamy and how “not yet has the man animal reached this standard”.

The scene is then set in a small town in Virginia where we meet Anna Moore (Lillian Gish), an impoverished country girl living a simple life. We are informed that Anna’s name and her specific story are unimportant, since she could very well be “the woman”, considering that what we’re about to see — according to Griffith — could happen to anyone. Anna is sent by her mother to visit their rich relatives in the city to ask for some financial help. The impish Gish transmits Anna’s eager innocence and simple-mindedness through a series of eyelash bats and facial gestures that lead us to think she deserves instant canonization.

In the city, Anna meets her snobbish cousins (“I recognized you from your pictures” she says) who reject her because of her social status. She also meets Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman), a womanizing card player whose talents are limited to seducing girls. He courts Anna, who surrenders to his worldly ways, and induces her to a marriage which, unbeknown to her, has no legality. After a day-long honeymoon, Lennox has Anna packed her bags and moved back to her small town. Soon after, she realizes the gravity of her sin when she finds out Lennox lied to her and even worse than that: she’s pregnant.

After a series of tragedies — some of which are only conveyed via title cards — Anna finds herself wandering the vast country on her own, until she’s taken in by the Bartlett family. Anna becomes a house-girl and inadvertently catches the attention of David Bartlett (Richard Barthelmess) who falls heads over heels for her. Anna however, conscious of all the sins she’s committed, has decided that she can be no man’s wife and will dedicate her life to quietly paying her penitence.

Anna’s life of quiet misery is turned upside down when Lennox arrives to the Bartlett’s town, in search for another victim. Should Anna unmask him and herself or should she suffer in silence, aiding Lennox’s sin by way of omission?

Way Down East was based on a play by Lottie Blair Parker. Considering the play was three decades old by the time Griffith made his movie, to call its values “outdated” would be an understatement. The story goes the extra mile to remind viewers that sin never goes unpunished and that victims contribute to the sin as much as the sinner. This devastating conception of justice is greatly emphasized by the movie’s cinematography ,which always oppresses Anna, whether by having the ample landscapes crush her and highlight her loneliness or by using irises that focus on her most sinful qualities. Only someone like Griffith can pull off both showcasing the beauty of Anna and her baby (in a framing that recalls Michelangelo’s La Pieta) and condemning her previous behavior using narration.

The dichotomy between stylish visuals and Victorian storytelling make Griffith a truly enigmatic figure. A film like Way Down East, for example, calls for audiences to read the subtext on two levels: first we have an almost misogynistic director put his heroine through tragedy after tragedy just so she can earn a happiness she should have as a human being. Conversely, we have a morality tale in which we must ponder whether the means justify the end. Is Griffith’s purpose to condemn the sinner or protect us from the sin?

Fortunately Way Down East culminates with a breathtaking sequence in which Anna has to be rescued from near death on a frozen river. This scene alone makes the movie a must-see, if only because it reminds us that beyond his narrow mindedness, Griffith was a true master of the form. “The truth must bloom that [man’s] greatest happiness lies in his purity and constancy” says a title card and it could very well be speaking of Griffith’s endless efforts to turn movies into the ultimate art.

The high definition transfer is of course the main attraction in this Blu-ray. The film uses several color filters to highlight the different emotional states of its heroine and Kino’s transfer does the best it can with a movie that’s more than 90 years old! There are tiny dust specs and some scenes have notable scratches. None, however ,are too significant to interrupt regular viewing. Bonus supplements in the disc are rather limited and mostly consist of notes, pictures and a clip of a scene in Uncle Tom’s Cabin that inspired the icy climax.

RATING 7 / 10