Anna Moore (Gish) is a simple country girl who lives with her mother. They are dirt poor, so she goes to the city to ask her wealthy relatives, the Tremonts, for help. After arriving there she meets Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman), a rich playboy and cad who sets his sights on Anna as a conquest. Anna is a virgin, though, so Lennox resorts to arranging a fake marriage in order to get Anna to go to bed with him. He stashes her away in the country and uses her as an occasional booty call until she tells him she's pregnant. Lennox then reveals that the marriage was a sham, and leaves Anna forever.
Things go from bad to worse when Anna's mother dies, which casts her adrift. The baby she conceived with Lennox also dies, right after it's born. A desperate Anna wanders to the country farm of Squire Bartlett, where she gets a job as a domestic and a place to belong. She also attracts the attention of the Squire's handsome son David, played by Richard Barthelmess, who had previously costarred with Gish in Broken Blossoms. Unfortunately it turns out that Lennox Sanderson owns the property next to the Bartlett farm. And there are others who know Anna's secret.
Even in 1920, Way Down East was old-fashioned and hokey, based on a play that dated back to the Victorian era. Yet the film is buoyed by Griffith's utterly sincere direction and Gish's fearless performance. It is best known for the memorable climax in which Anna, who has been cast out of the Bartlett home, stumbles out into a raging winter storm, finally falling down on an ice floe in the river. The ice then floats downstream to the falls, while David jumps from ice floe to ice floe, racing to save Anna. Except for one shot (the one at the edge of the falls), this climactic sequence was shot in a real storm, in brutal cold. Lillian Gish really had icicles forming on her face. She suffered permanent nerve damage in her hand from dangling it in the freezing river as she lay on the ice floe.
A sound remake was produced in 1935, with a young Henry Fonda in the cast.
- Absent-Minded Professor: The Professor, whose obliviousness is often mined for comedy. His Establishing Character Moment has him trapping Martha in his butterfly net during his single-minded pursuit of the butterflies he studies.
- Arranged Marriage / Kissing Cousins: The Squire wants David to marry pretty Kate, the Squire's niece. Neither David nor Kate is too interested in this.
- Bed Trick: A variant—Lennox so badly wants to get into Anna's pants that he arranges a fake marriage, complete with fake priest, just so he can have sex with her.
- Belligerent Sexual Tension: Martha's suitor constantly pursues her, and she often responds with physical violence. But it turns out they like each other in the end.
- Betty and Veronica: Kate's suitors The Professor and Lennox fit this dynamic, with the dorky Professor as the Betty and the seductive but morally questionable Lennox as the Veronica.
- Big Damn Hero: David, when he leaps around the ice floes and snatches up Anna right before she goes over the falls.
- Braving the Blizzard: Anna is cast out of the Bartlett's home, and wanders around outside in a deadly blizzard. David, her love interest, ventures out to find her, leading to a lengthy chase through the storm, which culminates in the daring, famous rescue from the Inevitable Waterfall.
- But for Me, It Was Tuesday: This intertitle on the Sham Wedding: "To her, it is the fulfillment of the dreams of girlhood — to him but another adventure."
- The Casanova: Lennox's main character trait is his constant seduction of various women."Lennox Sanderson's main interests were ladies, ladies, and LADIES."
- The City vs. the Country: Several variants within the same plot. Initially, Country Mouse Anna is a Fish out of Water with her wealthy cousins, who look down on her and laugh at her for her lack of fashion sense. After living there for a time, she becomes acclimatized to it. Later, when Anna seeks a job on a farm, Squire Bennett sees her as a City Mouse and is skeptical of her ability to perform heavy farm labor, but eventually she becomes integrated into farm life.
- Country Cousin: Anna, a country girl, goes to stay with her wealthy cousins in Boston. She is unfamiliar with the ways of the city, for incredibly impressed by electric lights and a phonograph. This innocence leaves her vulnerable to Lennox.
- Dances and Balls: Anna meets Lennox when the Tremonts give a fancy dress ball.
- Defiled Forever: Anna, Squire Bartlett, and many of the other characters believe she is sinful and unmarriable due to her past.
- Disco Dan: Martha still dresses as if it were the mid-19th century, and her values seem to reflect that time as well.
- Double Standard: Discussed Trope, when Lennox says to Anna that a man is expected to "sow his wild oats", while she has to keep quiet forever to avoid the shame.
- Down on the Farm: Squire Bartlett's farm. Anna gets a job there as a domestic servant.
- Driven to Suicide: Anna's mad dash to the river during the storm reads as this, although she stops just short of throwing herself in the river and instead lies down right next to the edge.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: Anna certainly goes through a lot before finding her happy ending with David.
- Foreshadowing: A shot of the river and the falls in summer, then later a comment about how the ice on the river is about to break loose.
- Genki Girl: Kate. She runs everywhere, often flailing her arms wildly, and seems to talk non-stop (although she doesn't get any dialog on the title cards). Her initial return home is incredibly high-energy.
- Hostile Weather: A devastating blizzard, so strong people can barely walk without staggering, happens to come up the night Squire Bartlett returns with the truth about Anna's past.
- Idle Rich: Lennox lives off his father's money.
- Inevitable Waterfall: The film features a number of tranquil shots of the nearby waterfall. Initially the contribute to the pastoral of the Down on the Farm setting, but they foreshadow the dramatic climax, as David and Anna scramble to avoid falling off the edge of the waterfall with the ice floe.
- The Ingenue: Anna at the beginning of the movie. She is incredibly innocent and good-natured, oblivious to the social ways of her wealthy cousins. This enables her to be seduced by Lennox. After the incident she becomes wiser and more strong-willed, but retains her sense of purity.
- Incorruptible Pure Pureness: While Anna believes she has been Defiled Forever, she is actually this, even after her encounter with Lennox.
- Moral Guardians:
- The bitchy landlady who throws Anna out of her rooming house for giving birth without benefit of a husband.
- The town gossip, who learns Anna's secret from the bitchy landlady and rushes to tell Squire Bartlett.
- And finally Squire Bartlett, who reacts to the news by being a huge dick and kicking Anna out of the house.
- My Girl Is Not a Slut: This double standard is the source of most of the drama in the film. Lennox sleeps around like crazy with no consequences, but Anna, who becomes a parent out of wedlock due to his deception, is left on the verge of destitution due to the shame and her lack of resources.
- Old Maid: Martha, who is still unmarried in middle age.
- Pair the Spares: With two pairs of spares. Kate marries the nerdy professor who stays at the farm when he's doing wildlife research, and the crotchety old spinster marries the hillbilly that's been chasing her for twenty years.
- A Party, Also Known as an Orgy: Lennox throws a 1920's-appropriate version of one of these wild parties, attended mainly by women doing salacious dancing. At the end of the scene, three women take him by the arm and are attempting to make out with him.
- Psychic Link: David hasn't even met Anna yet, but he wakes up roughly from a dream at the moment of Anna's fake wedding.
- Real Fake Wedding: Inverted. The bad guy fakes a wedding, complete with a fake priest, in order to get the virginal heroine to go to bed with him.
- Really Gets Around: Lennox is a fairly rare male example of this trope, as the film takes a distinctly disapproving view of men cheating on women.
- Say My Name: An interesting use of the trope for the silent film medium. Near the climax, several shots close in on David's face as he screams something dramatically. Reading his lips, he's clearly yelling "ANNA!!"
- Sham Wedding: Lennox and Annie have a wedding ceremony, which Lennox later reveals was a sham and not legally binding. The whole thing was done in order to get in her pants, and Lennox leaves her after the reveal.
- Weddings for Everyone: Three couples get married at once at the end of the film.
- Whole Plot Reference: The movie was based off an old play, which means that it must have been the play that ripped off Tess of the d'Urbervilles (and gave it a Happy Ending).