Wednesday 8 June 2011

1,001 Films: "Way Down East" (1920)

Way Down East is the Griffith film cited by those Russian titans Eisenstein and Pudovkin as a source of fascination, and you can see why: tackling the sexual politics of its day - and how it's woman who suffers most for the sins of man - this is a film of considerable modernity, despite being based on an old chestnut of the stage. Lillian Gish plays Anna, a country naif tricked into a fake marriage and then impregnated by a cad during her stay in the city; the bounder absconds, the baby dies, and Anna is taken in as help on a farm run by a family who know their scripture, where the eldest son has been waiting for a girl so seemingly pure at heart, the cad and bounder has his estate round the corner, gossip spreads fast, and the past has a way of catching up with people.

There follows the narrative template for all those subsequent films in which characters crushed or otherwise worn down by the big city find themselves restored by country airs, and urban venality meets its match in rural charity, charms and good humour. It helps that Griffith is working from source material that, rather than contentious (The Birth of a Nation, Broken Blossoms) or over-ambitious (Intolerance), seems perfectly weighted to the cinematic form. The result contains many of this director's funniest scenes (most of the business around the farm) and his saddest (Gish having her child die in her arms), his drollest intertitles and most fully-realised characters.

The dozy Constable Whipple, struggling with his horse, could have come off the pages of Shakespeare; and then there's the Harold Lloyd-anticipating Professor, wreaking havoc with a butterfly net. Even Gish is sparkier and more spirited than usual, right through to the final ice floe sequence - a still-striking shot-for-real action set-piece (those shivers aren't faked) that also allows Griffith to arrive at a great metaphor for a fragmenting society - where you really do care to see her heroine rescued. A work of unfaltering compassion for a young woman tossed to the elements, it's this director's true masterpiece.

Way Down East is available to watch online at

No comments:

Post a Comment