Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919)

Director: D. W. Griffith

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By Roderick Heath

D. W. Griffith is a difficult filmmaker to approach. So vital to the history of cinema and so problematic in the shadows of his unforgivably racist The Birth of a Nation (1915), the irony of Griffith’s career was that he destroyed it in trying to answer the criticisms leveled at his greatest success. Intoxicated by the melodramatic swoon of Thomas Dixon’s KKK-propagandising source novel and dismayed by the forced realisation he had produced a work that offended many, Griffith was to take up the theme of prejudice and social conflict again and again: an opening title for Broken Blossoms suggests there is a warning in its tale of a cold-hearted brute that the most casual insults are essentially the same as physical assault. His sophistication in cinema accompanied an artistic sensibility solidly rooted in the sentimental codes of Victorian fiction. Broken Blossoms itself is built around the most discomforting and titillating of themes for audiences of the era—miscegenation—as a Chinese hero and an English waif are thrown together as a match more or less made in heaven.

For such a director, a triangular character drama set in a slum might have seemed a comedown from recreating and demolishing Babylon for the colossally ambitious Intolerance (1916), and yet Broken Blossoms became a landmark in the career of Griffith and its star, Lillian Gish. Initially met by producer Adolph Zukor with dismay, the film proved a huge hit that revived Griffith’s career, and it’s still a tremendously intense and provocative experience 90 years later. Griffith used his innate gifts to create a statement confirming less as more, constructing a compulsively exciting melodrama and a cultural parable out of the most minimal elements.

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Griffith, though inevitably wary and teasing in portraying interracial eroticism, isn’t subtle about reconfiguring audience sympathies. Its hero, Cheng Huan, referred to as The Yellow Man (Richard Barthelmess), is a conscientious, idealistic missionary, and its villain, “Battling” Burrows (Donald Crisp), is a vicious, depraved icon of Anglo-Saxon brutality. In between them is Lillian Gish’s victimised heroine Lucy, the epitome of the endangered, fragile feminine archetype in the Victorian pantheon. Three stock figures, but also three figures of nuanced realisation play in a work that seriously interrogates the nature of humankind as both impossibly aspiring and irrevocably bestial.

The opening scenes, set in a Chinese treaty port, establish the story and the theme of a clash of cultures and peaceful and warlike impulses. Here are the clearly organised and repeated images of yearning and transcendence: the sight of a ship steaming out of Cheng’s home port, and the act of a monk ringing a temple bell. Cheng Huan’s ambition, amusingly enough, is to take the Buddhist teachings of tranquility and peacefulness to the “barbarous Anglo-Saxons, sons of toil and strife.” His religious instructor encourages his desire and implores that he remember his creed out in the world. Cheng’s first encounter with rough Western ways happens before he even gets on the boat: a gang of American sailors who are brawling playfully. Mistaking this for serious conflict, Cheng Huan intervenes and offers a quote that evokes the common ideals of Buddhism and Christianity in a variation on “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Cheng Huan is immediately knocked over as the scrap continues, literally and metaphorically turning his perspective upside-down.

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Several years later, Cheng’s fortunes have reduced his to a dispirited, opium-addicted “Chink store-keeper” in Limehouse. The only bright spot in his day is the sight of Lucy, who drifts aimlessly around the docks and alleys and delights at the dolls in his store, before returning home to face the relentlessly abusive Burrows, a professional boxer. Harried by his manager for his overindulgence in drink and women before a return bout against the Limehouse Tiger, Burrows is in an especially vicious mood. When he accidentally knocks a frying pan Lucy is holding to serve him supper and spills hot fat on his hand, he delivers to her a terrible beating, before departing for his training residence across the river. The physically shattered girl stumbles through the streets to Cheng Huan’s shop and collapses on the floor.

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There are still very few commercial films that depict domestic violence with such unvarnished, unforgiving ferocity. “The manager’s complaint about drink and women puts Battling in a rage – he cannot take his temper out on him – he saves it for a weaker object,” a title-card puts it, explaining Burrows’ taunting of his daughter, who is so habitually unhappy she can only “smile” by pushing the corners of her mouth up with her fingers. The film is defined rhythmically by the build-up to Burrows’ two great explosions. The first, after the fat-spilling, sees father herd daughter with a whip in hand, Lucy trying to dissuade him by cowering and cleaning off his boots. She senses that her abuse can only have one end and begs her father to stop, not for her own sake, but because he’ll be hung for murder eventually. The second outburst comes, of course, after Burrows removes Lucy from Cheng Huan’s shop. Lucy, knowing what’s coming, locks herself in the cupboard, with ever-increasing terror as her father hacks at the door in a sequence that anticipates just about every horror movie ever made.

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It’s Griffith’s technique that makes Broken Blossoms more than a tawdry melodrama, though his success is as manifest in the sense of realistic environment and attentiveness to the performances of Gish and Barthelmess as it is in the montage and structural showiness. Once the action shifts to London, Griffith puts us into the headspace of his three protagonists with associative flashbacks. Yellow Man, Lucy, and Burrows are introduced in their respective situations, and Griffith bends the narrative arc back to illustrate their lives: Cheng Huan reflecting on the world of vice and opium dens he’s trapped in; Burrows on his most recent pulverisation of an opponent; and Lucy on her alternatives, from the housewife with a filthy household who advises her, “Whatever you do, dearie, don’t get married,” to being “Warned as strongly by the ladies of the street against their profession.” Cheng Huan has arrived “where the Orient squats at the portals of the West,” as an intertitle puts it, scratching out a living and expending it in an opium den where the refuse of many nations congregate and, it’s hinted, copulate. “Fifteen years before one of Battler’s girls thrust into his arms a bundle of white rags – So Lucy came to Limehouse” explicates Burrows’ contempt for his daughter and her own desperate clinging to a scrap of velvet that is her mother’s only inheritance.

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Although Griffith didn’t leave the backlot, there’s a documentary feel to the observation of Chinese musicians and the seamy environment of Limehouse. Griffith keeps his narrative moving, and its elements constantly interrelate structurally, such as the scene in which Burrows’s second bout with Tiger alternates with Cheng resisting his urge to make love to Lucy. Perhaps the most vital manifestation of his cinematic vision when the camera takes Lucy’s point of view in two crucial, late sequences that posit the two men who battle for her in likeness. Cheng Huan, almost overcome by his desire for Lucy in kissing her, and her father in his wrathful rage, are both photographed in looming, first-person ultra-close-up, each man rendered threatening and alien. The difference is in the resolution. Cheng restrains himself, and the title-card assures us that his love remained “a pure and holy thing.” Burrows has no such restraint. The film’s bitterness is remarkable, though leavened by an often corny, but heartfelt poeticised idealisation, in which Cheng renames Lucy with the “love-name” of White Blossom.

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The narrative’s ironies extend from an opening in China where the everyday activities of the local families and promenaders are disturbed by foreigners, to Cheng’s encounter at his Limehouse shop with two friendly Christian ministers. One tells him that “My brother leaves for China tomorrow to convert the heathen.” The Yellow Man, suppressing a wry smile, offers, “I – I wish him luck,” before they give him a book on Hell, about which he already knows too much. Later, when Burrows discovers that Lucy is living with Cheng Huan, the card tells us, “Battling discovers his parental rights,” outraged at the notion of his daughter “with a dirty Chink.” The film becomes an almost cosmically realised battle of the sacred and profane, beyond the reach of the tawdry interracial dramas Sessue Hayakawa was starring in at the time. Cheng’s capacity to retain his humanism and defend Lucy’s femininity even when confronted with incredible degradation and temptation is the story’s great question; and even the peace-loving Cheng is finally driven to kill Burrows, if only in self-defence.

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When Burrows’ sleazy mates discover his body and run to fetch a policeman, the bobby is discussing a story in the newspaper commenting on war news: “Better than last week – only 40,000 casualties.” It’s the only confirmation that the film is set during World War I, a virtual throwaway touch, and yet it confirms the film as a broader study of the destructive capacity of humankind in general, in which the only bulwark is Cheng’s religious and romantic idealism. Griffiths even subverts his own clichés, the climax employing his already-famous cross-cutting techniques in a race to the rescue. He ratchets up the tension as Cheng, arming himself with a revolver, dashes to Lucy’s aid as Burrows breaks into the cupboard, but he gets there too late to save her from a fatal beating. Griffith proved that manipulative cinematic techniques could be used to make tragedy as thrilling as triumph, and could then be used in a fashion that’s critical and not merely involving.

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Broken Blossoms is not without faults, chiefly in some pretty overripe title cards, the presence of Cheng’s Chinese foil Evil Eye (Edward Peil Sr.), who doesn’t contribute anything to the story other than some stock ethnic sleaze, and Crisp. Crisp would develop into one of the talkie era’s more restrained actors and is physically fine for the part, but his idea of telegraphing psychotic rage is to warp his mouth in odd shapes like a grade schooler trying to be scary. That said, he does offer up a splendidly insidious touch in his final rampage of holding Gish down and repeatedly tapping the stock of his whip on her forehead in dreadful prelude. Whilst, obviously, Cheng ought to have been played by an Asian actor, Barthelmess nonetheless is splendid as the Yellow Man, particularly in the early scenes, with his resigned smile and air of cynical equanimity. He even indulges in a bit of stoner comedy when Cheng still intoxicated with opium, returns to his shop and thinks that the prostrate Lucy is a hallucination. When he and Crisp finally confront each other over Gish’s dead body, the mutual, animalistic hatred fairly vibrates. And Gish herself is quite remarkable in her understatement, whether drifting through scenes in dour misery, contending with Cheng’s attentions with a gentle, almost amused distraction, or building terrified hysteria when her father’s rages approach. She had protested to Griffith that she was too old for the part, but you’d hardly imagine it.

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