Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess reunite in D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East, the fourth Griffith film to appear on the must see list. I’ve of a split mind when it comes to over-representation of a particular director, and while Griffith was one of the first truly great directors of film history, there’s a limit to how much of his work really warrants placement on the list. This film is a prime example of this internal debate; it’s good, but is it really so good that it deserves must-see status?
As typical of Griffith’s films, he uses a copious amount of title cards to tell the story and set the scene, relying on the images to mostly give picture to the words and to transition from one card to the next. It’s not a very filmic storytelling method, I must admit, but Griffith manages to get away with it usually by using rich imagery. Here, however, the images are mostly standard, the framing rudimentary and textbook; there’s very little adventurous spirit here that was pervasive throughout Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, very little gusto. There are moments that showcase Griffith’s normally above-par aptitude in this area, but on the whole I found the film lacking. Perhaps it’s just me getting used to Griffith and other wizards of the cinema and their techniques, but I wasn’t too impressed by this one; I didn’t find it particularly innovative in any way, though I did enjoy the story, at least when it wasn’t being melodramatic. Gish is more of a star here than she was in other Griffith productions on the list, and she gets to utilize more of her talents here. There’s a wee bit of overacting on the part of the supporting players, but it’s quaint in an old-timey way.
There is a 107 minute version and a 145 minute version of this one; I saw the 145 minute version, and to me the film did seem to drag at times and have a few unnecessary subplots and sections that could’ve easily been excised. The film runs long, yes, but with Griffith it’s a thing you need to get used to quick, although that doesn’t mean you have to like it. I found this one merely okay, even with the spectacle of the ending (in typical Griffith fashion). I only have one more Griffith film on the list to go, and I can only hope it’s on the higher end of the Griffith spectrum than this one was.
Arbitrary Rating: 6/10