A D.W. Griffith film from the silent era (1920), WAY DOWN EAST is a brilliant and unassuming example of what critic Richard Schickel has called “the power of the screen to inform the heart, without lecturing it.” This concept illustrates what the best silent films accomplished in a way that no other medium of communication ever has. The plot concerns Anna (Lillian Gish) a young woman who lives with her mother “down east”–that section of Maine that lies east of Boston. When they fall on hard times, Anna leaves for Boston to prevail upon their wealthy relatives for help. Soon, Anna meets a handsome man who fools her into a fake marriage ceremony, seduces her, then leaves her. Pregnant and alone, Anna has the baby in a rooming house; but the baby becomes ill, and she baptizes it before it dies. Later, Anna lives with a God-fearing New England family. The village gossips learn of her past, and she is ordered to leave the premises.
To fully appreciate this extraordinary movie, one should bear in mind that it is D.W. Griffith’s homage to what Schickel has called “this moral universe he had inhabited when he was growing up.” Made two years after World War I, WAY DOWN EAST marks the end of the Victorian age mentally and artistically, and the old attitudes and convictions were being preserved in the new and inherently modern medium of film.
(H, LLL, SSS, NNN. VV) Humanism; 69 obscenities and 2 profanities; extremely crude language and sexual innuendo; fornication, perversity and sexual immorality throughout; extensive female nudity & brief rear male nudity; repeated views of one character's sex artifacts; three shootings & one character poisoned; and, relentless stupidity.