Watching this film is an amazing experience -- something like a great mixture of looking through the personal scrapbook of someone from a bygone era, hearing a wonderful legend retold, and feeling your own visceral emotions fired with electricity.
In making the film, the characterizations and plot were designed in such a way that they are familiar but also unique. The story defies some of what have come to be conventions (stereotypes) for supporting roles. And, it betrays what have always been simpler expectations for a story with a happy ending. While there is sorrow and loss in modern film and earlier film, here they are portrayed without the often contingent silver-linings. Bad things happen in this film...and we are not given the immediate sense that all will be right in the end.
The title role is filled admirably by Richard Barthelmess. He did fine work here -- no wonder it led to his making as a star. But for me, the film was made by the principal heavy -- played by Ernest Torrence. What a creep he managed to portray -- a villain with a completely perverted moral sense. And Torrence held nothing back in his postures and expressions. He had this character nailed. A stunning performance.
Director Henry King did marvelous work with this villain and all of the film's elements. Portraying an idyllic rural atmosphere which is soon troubled by the arrival of lawlessness (Torrence and two other actors who play the nefarious Hatburn family), he demonstrates an ability to frame a scene with great visual appeal. He also manages to be economical in a sense -- one camera angle captures the majority of a scene's action and this is supplemented by occasional close-up reaction shots. His camera positioning is expert in this. We are given the best angle -- not several lesser angles from which to view.
I could not leave out mention of the charming Gladys Hulette who played the sweet romantic lead in this film. As the young girl, Esther, who is a neighbor to David and his family, she gave an incomparable performance. This role called for her to do much more than bat her eyelashes at the camera and she accomplished it with skill.
So, yes, this film does end happily...but I'll say no more.
It is the sort of film which should be appreciated as something other than a relic from the cinema's past. It is a postcard from an earlier day -- the message isn't as simple as "wish you were here" though. It has much more to tell us than that!