Newly released on blu-ray from the enterprising label Kino Lorber are two of D.W. Griffith’s most significant films, The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Way Down East (1920). The earlier and more famous film, while historically important, is also morally abhorrent; its much commented upon racism has ensured that it remains Griffith’s most well-known work, as it is still frequently screened at American Universities in not only film history classes but also U.S. history and sociology classes. Unfortunately, its racism has also tended to obscure Griffith’s other achievements, turning off young people to both the pioneering director and early cinema in the process. It is, of course, impossible today to fully understand movies from earlier eras in their original context. Young people today, even those who aren’t cinephiles, accept the auteur theory, the notion that a film should be seen as the personal expression of its director, as a given. But in the early twentieth century, movies were not perceived this way. D.W. Griffith made over four hundred films, many of them adaptations of novels and stage plays, and across his vast body of work can be found many contradictory ideological positions. This is not to excuse the racism of Birth, but to provide greater context for it and to illustrate how its creator could also make movies that functioned as explicitly anti-racist tracts – such as 1919’s Broken Blossoms. The subject of this review, however, is Way Down East, a prototypical “feminist film,” and one that is as shockingly progressive as Birth is reactionary. It is also one of Griffith’s very best movies.
Way Down East is an adaptation of both a novel and a stage play of the same title, although Griffith greatly elaborated on both by adding an action climax that is 100% pure cinema. The basic story concerns Anna Moore (Lillian Gish), a poor country girl sent by her mother to live with rich relatives in an unnamed New England city. Upon arrival, the naive Anna is seduced by a rich ne’er do well named Lennox (Lowell Sherman), who tricks her into a sham marriage and then discards her after having his way with her. Tragically, Anna becomes pregnant and moves to a rural country home where she can have the baby in secret. When the baby dies, Anna wanders the countryside looking for work, eventually hiring on at the home of a wealthy farmer, Squire Bartlett (Burr McIntosh). David (Richard Barthelmess), the farmer’s son, falls for Anna but Lennox unexpectedly moves to this same town and threatens to bring Anna’s shameful past to light.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Way Down East is its feeling for American small towns and the “plain people” who inhabit them. There are few movies that allow you to feel the weather and the changing of the seasons in a landscape as tangibly as Griffith does in this masterpiece, even if he had to shoot in locations as diverse as New York, Connecticut, Vermont and Florida to create a single coherent cinematic space. When Anna arrives at the Bartlett farm, there are delightful extended scenes that take place in the front yard where a spring breeze can be observed blowing through flowers in full bloom and the leafy boughs of a giant oak tree while baby chickens wander through the grass. Similarly, the climax takes place in the dead of winter and the very real snowstorms in which Griffith and his cameraman Billy Bitzer shot these scenes give the film a documentary-like realism while also serving the more expressionistic purpose of externalizing the tumultuous emotions in Anna’s heart.
Way Down East also notably serves as a showcase for the incredible acting talents of Lillian Gish, who gives one of her finest performances as Anna. Gish, whose innocent, waif-like persona combined toughness and vulnerability in equal measure, could conjure viewer empathy better than any other silent actress (with the possible exception of Janet Gaynor). Even after 91 years it is easy to become emotionally invested in the dilemma of her character, and there are two scenes in particular where her performance deserves mention: the baptism scene, where the anguished Anna learns that her infant son is dying and decides to baptize the baby herself, and the dinner table confrontation between Anna and Lennox, where she publicly denounces him for being an evil seducer. The latter scene should especially be of interest to contemporary audiences; while the beginning of the film contains title cards extolling the virtues of “purity” and “constancy,” Anna’s righteous fury towards the end makes it clear that Griffith’s true aim is not to promote monogamy but rather to boldly attack hypocrisy and sexual double standards. Griffith may have had a penchant for Victorian melodrama and Old Testament moralizing but he also had his modernist side as both filmmaker and social critic.
It has often been said that movies would look very different today had it not been for D.W. Griffith, and Way Down East provides ample evidence why. The ice-floe climax, for instance, is an exciting, visceral, rapidly edited montage depicting David Bartlett’s rescue of an unconscious Anna, floating downriver on a sheet of broken ice, just before it goes over a waterfall in freezing temperatures. It is one of the most famous and influential of all such rescue scenes; the climaxes of Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality, Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky and scores of other movies would be unthinkable without it. Also influential is Griffith’s blending of tragedy and comedy; as in Shakespeare’s tragedies, Griffith has the dramatic story of his main characters re-enacted as low comedy by the supporting cast. The courtship of Anna and David, for example, is mirrored by not one but two relationships involving characters who are backwards country bumpkins, with an absent-minded Professor-type thrown into the mix for good measure. Griffith’s use of comedic subplots to rhyme with the main dramatic plot would influence John Ford, who used the technique in many of his own films (including She Wore a Yellow Ribbon where the retirement of Victor McLaglen’s drunken Sergeant comically mirrors the dramatic treatment of the retirement of John Wayne’s Captain.) Another aspect of the Fordian universe that was clearly inspired by Griffith is the portrayal of a community as a collection of social rituals. This is best evidenced in Way Down East by the dance sequence where the Professor, played by the splendid comic actor Patrick Fitzgerald, proves to have two left feet.
Kino’s high definition blu-ray of Way Down East is based on the Museum of Modern Art’s photochemical restoration of original film elements. Like the “complete” Metropolis, the image quality varies dramatically from scene to scene and sometimes even from shot to shot. Some segments appear to be taken from 16mm prints, presumably where they were the only extant film elements, and other scenes that appear to be lost forever are represented by still photographs and title cards. But the most pristine shots, rendered in 1080i, still have the power to take one’s breath away. See, for instance, the early establishing shot of Anna leaving home where she is out of focus in the background while the blossoms on a low hanging tree branch appear to pop out of the frame in the foreground in almost 3D fashion. A new score, composed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, deftly weaves together traditional folk songs and hymns, entirely appropriate for a film that Kino is rightfully marketing as “An Americana Classic.” The 5.1 surround sound mix is terrific.
Silent film lovers, even those with no interest in seeing or re-seeing The Birth of a Nation, should jump at the chance to check out Way Down East on blu-ray. It is easily the best this film has ever looked and sounded on home video. Kino Lorber has in my opinion become a national treasure for almost single-handedly keeping interest in silent cinema alive in the post-DVD era (their other notable blu-ray releases include The Battleship Potemkin and many of Buster Keaton’s silent classics). One hopes that they will soon also see fit to release blu-ray versions of the several F.W. Murnau titles to which they currently hold the rights. Next year does, after all, mark the 90th anniversary of Nosferatu . . .