Way Down East (1920)


  • directed by D.W. Griffith
  • starring Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Lowell Sherman, Burr McIntosh, Kate Bruce, Mary Hay, Creighton Hale
  • A naive country girl must rebuild her life after being tricked into a sham marriage by a wealthy womanizer.

I suppose there’s more than one way in which to experience Way Down East. D.W. Griffith’s intention according to the introduction was to provide some kind of historical context to the double standard to which we judge men and women in terms of relationships and status. As he put it in the title cards, this film takes place at a particularly bad time for wives as husbands were stepping out and playing the field possibly more than ever. There are also less successful moral and religious themes strewn throughout, such as the subjectiveness of religious scripture and a depiction of those that downright reject it.

There seemed to be a lot of things swirling around in the director’s head that he may have wanted to flush out in Way Down East but from my perspective, and for fans like me who are consistently knocked out by the purity and effectiveness of Lillian Gish’s acting, Griffith’s themes failed to resonate beyond frequent mention and the entire film was really just a showcase for the actress to do what she does best. In that way, it was basically a two-hours-plus emotional beatdown because nobody plays hurt like Gish and nobody put her through the ringer like Griffith.

Even when she wasn’t on the screen and the film moved to focus on one of the comical side characters or the overlong party scene for instance, I could think of nothing else but the dark shadow that Anna’s tortured existence cast over the story. Griffith went to great lengths to give depth to a lot of characters that surrounded the Bartlett household, but for me there simply was no film outside of Anna’s arc. I would even find myself trying to picture what she was doing or how she was getting along during the times when the action moved elsewhere.

To summarize the story, we meet Anna in the midst of desperate financial circumstances living with her mother in the country. They decide that she is to head to the city to seek assistance from better-off relatives and immediately her eyes light up at the many beauties of high society. Before long she falls into the trap of a phony marriage to wealthy playboy Lennox Sanderson, seeing in him security and happiness for her family and the fairy tale future that she never thought she deserved. Little does she know she’s just a short-term conquest for Lennox and he never intends on marriage despite getting her pregnant. From there things get worse as she returns home alone, her mother dies, and then so does her newborn; all this as she’s still processing extreme heartbreak. It was here that the movie began to feel almost at the level of a horror movie with the amount of torture put to poor Anna.

As someone completely closed off to the outside world and then only exposed to the very worst it has to offer and mainly due to Gish’s supremely vulnerable and devastating performance, Anna’s troubles made this portion of the film feel a lot like watching a child or an animal subjected to abuse and that was just crushing. It doesn’t get better as she is now alone and wandering around in a daze looking for work. She ends up at the Bartlett house with two ultra religious parents at the head so if her history of unmarried illegitimate motherhood was found out then it would be hell all over again because something resembling a family unit is finally within reach and there’s a small sliver of romantic potential with their son, David, although she refuses his advances because she herself feels tainted by her scandalous past, innocent and manipulated though she was. There was a lot of rock bottom for Anna throughout the film and I guess one of the more innovative parts of the story was how it was never true bottom and her situation always got darker until the somewhat surprising conclusion.

The thing Griffith really nailed better than anything in Way Down East is the ending, a thrilling sequence still granted classic status to this day and one that was executed, painfully so, without special effects. The storm that Anna races into after being shamed by the Bartletts sure looked like the real thing and a cast and crew that suffered frostbite and permanent injuries is a testament to the fact that, yes, it was a very harsh and cold set during those days. I call what happens to Anna somewhat of a surprise because up until that point, the stage had been set over and over again for her to go through nothing but hell and at best die a martyr, a sacrifice by Griffith so he could tell his story of the era’s inequality and unfairness in even more dire terms.

Overall, the film had some nice glimpses into the culture and style of the 1920’s at times and it truly was a hell of an exciting climax, but Griffith packed in a lot too many side plots, the melodramatic elements got to be too much, and it’s easy to say that the main reason that Way Down East holds any sort standing of importance and  impact was because of Lillian Gish.


About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

2 Responses to Way Down East (1920)

  1. Pingback: Miss Lulu Bett (1921) | classixquest

  2. Pingback: Orphans of the Storm (1921) | classixquest

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