This pastoral melodrama still packs a punch after nearly a century, mostly thanks to a lovingly produced scenario concocted by director Henry King with screenwriter (and future director) Edmund Goulding, from a Joseph Hergesheimer short story, and featuring a nearly flawless cast led by the charismatic Richard Barthelmess.
There is nothing fancy here except perhaps some overdone Griffith-style editing flourishes at the climax which artificially prolong the action, stretching its essential slam-bang quality into something resembling the slow motion stylization that caught on in the Sixties (Bonnie & Clyde's ending, for instance).
Generally, the pacing, setup and unfolding of the story are smooth and sure; the characters are authentically embodied and intelligently cast; the acting is subtle and for the most part realistic; the photography reveals all of the necessary information without ever calling attention to itself. The full spectrum of human emotional and spiritual states are covered. The themes are as old as the Virginia hills in which the story takes place: God, family, home, good vs evil, kindness vs cruelty, mother love, personal responsibility, coming of age, the cycle of birth, aging and death.
Ernest Torrence, in real life as civilized and cultivated a man as one could hope to encounter, plays a despicable criminal, who with his father and younger brother comprise a trio of sociopaths. The way he is photographed and choreographed heavily underscores his wickedness, but this kind of heightened presentation was a staple of silent cinema both in the US and abroad. The height and body language of the three bad-guy actors is in marked contrast to the families they afflict, adding a visual dimension to their essential natures. The least satisfying acting comes from Warner Richmond, who too often substitutes stupid grinning for characterization as the title character's strapping older brother. But Marion Abbott never cloys as the emotionally ravaged mother, and Gladys Hulette is the perfect country girl next door. Barthelmass is the soul of the film and perhaps never equaled this performance.
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