Broken Blossoms
U.S.A. Before 1950
Directed by D.W. Griffith.

Trying to break his racist image from Birth of a Nation, director D.W. Griffith put together this film about a poor Chinese man who puts the moves on a white woman and gets lynched. And this is different how, Mr. Griffith...?

First off, I should probably point out I am not a silent film expert, nor even an afficionado. True, I have watched more than my fair share of silents, mainly comedies by Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton. And I do have a certain appreciation for Fritz Lang. But to discuss a film by D.W. Griffith is to discuss a man who is at the center of silent film studies, who has made some of the most influential films ever produced. A man whose movies, quite frankly, I've never been in the least bit interested in seeing. Why not? His artistry is unmistakable, and several times in Broken Blossoms I was struck by the beauty of a particular scene. His skill as a director unquestionable -- watch carefully and you can see the creation of modern cinematic techniques right before your very eyes. But in the main, I just don't care to watch movies from the maker of Birth of a Nation (1915). There's something about a film which blatantly champions the KKK as heroes of the new south that is utterly appalling.

I'm happy to say that my feelings of repulsion toward his film Birth of a Nation is exactly what most audiences felt when viewing it, even on its initial release. The public outcry was such that his career really never fully recovered. He tried editing the film a few times to appease the public, once to remove the castration of a black man during his lynching, then another time to exise the picture of its KKK footage in its entirety. But it was too late, the damage was done. In an attempt to redeem himself, he put together an epic about man's inhumanity to man, called Intolerance (1916). It included four seperate stories, including one about Jesus and one about an Irish-Catholic boy wrongly imprisoned in turn of the century California, each underscoring how terrible it is to be persecuted. You know, like the Klan persecuted southern blacks. It wasn't much of a success.

Not to be deterred, his next film he felt would also highlight intolerance of difference, fears of mysogyny, and racism. No doubt this time he felt his message would get across, and he would at last be seen as a friend to all mankind, and certainly not that racist guy who made Birth of a Nation. The film was named Broken Blossoms, and unfortunately for D.W.'s dreams, insensitively subtitled The Yellow Man and the Girl.

The Yellow Man of the title is played by Richard Barthelmess, a New Yorker who is not at all Chinese. His version of being Chinese consists largely of walking about with his eyelids half open all the time, as if he was drowsy, still half asleep. The overall effect is annoying. I kept thinking to myself, "maybe he could see a bit better if he would just OPEN HIS EYES!" As far as I can tell this is the only bit of yellowface acting he ever did, but it was his success here that made him a star, at least for a short while.

The Girl, named Lucy, is none other than Lillian Gish. She was D.W. Griffith's favorite leading lady, also appearing in Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, among others. This time she plays a fifteen year old girl, though to my calculations she was 24 at the time and her appearance in this film makes her look about 40. So much for her famous "child-like" beauty. Perhaps it comes across better in other of her films.

Broken Blossoms opens in Shanghai, where the Yellow Man prepares for a trip to the west, with "dreams to spread the gentle message of Buddha to the Anglo-Saxon lands." The temple monks send him off to the sound of bells. On his way, he runs into some American sailors fighting at the port. He tries to break them up. "Do not give blows for blows," he says, and then quotes the Buddha: "What thou dost not want others to do to thee, do thou not unto others." Why sayings of the Buddha would read like King James English is never explained. The sailors push him aside and continue fighting.

Some might consider that to be a bad sign, but he plunges ahead anyway, and some years later the Yellow Man finds himself in the Limehouse district of London, his mission obviously not going so well since he just sort of hangs out down there, running a curio shop, smoking opium, and playing fan-tan.

Meanwhile, in another decrepid corner of Limehouse lives Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp), a tough boxer with a flair for overacting. He likes to drink and spend time with the ladies, but his Manager disapproves. When he gets into a bad mood, then, he just beats his daughter, Lucy, a cowering, cringing, pathetic young girl.

Lucy has no future prospects whatsoever. Her married friend, doing the laundry of her five children by hand in a big cauldron as if making a witches brew, warns her off marriage. Later on the street, a few prostitutes warn her off becoming a whore. What's a woman to do, then? When Burrows beats her again, this time with a whip, she staggers out of the house and flees, ending up in the Yellow Man's curio shop. He gets some water and bandages and starts dressing her wounds, then takes her upstairs to sleep in safety. All seems well, but then a friend of Burrows spies her on the Yellow Man's bed.

When he finds out, Battling Burrows forms a lynch mob to kill the Chinaman. But the Yellow Man is not at the curio shop when he comes around, so Burrows simply takes Lucy back to their flat, where he viciously beats her to death. It's all the Yellow Man can do to follow them back to the flat, kill Burrows, and take Lucy's body back to the curio shop with him. By the time the cops have converged on his flat, he's taken his own life as well, his last thoughts, of the Buddhist temple he left in China and the ringing of its bells.

The movies opening scenes are among its most interesting, evoking Shanghai with street scenes filled with, surprisingly, actual Chinese going about their business. The Buddhist temple he visits before departing is serene and peaceful, the shot of a monk ringing the temple bells, so important to the story, is beautifully composed, the monks back is to the audience as he slowly hits the bell with a mallet, while your eye is attracted to a great five-story pagoda which towers some distance away.

Contrasting this serenity is the scene of Limestone itself, a dark, unpleasant, forboding place, enshrouded with fog. This Chinatown is a place of broken dreams, of dark unending nights swallowed up by opium smoke. Of gambling and prostitution. The only other Chinese character given much screen time is called only The Evil Eye, a mean man who first lusts for Lucy then takes delight in informing the Yellow Man that she has been taken away by her father. The white family that lives there does so in abject poverty and filth. It is a hopeless, opressive place, home of the waking dead.

D.W. Griffith wears his message on his sleeve. Battling Burrows sneers his way through every scene -- he is the villain of the piece, a brute, as the intertitles call him. The beatings which he gives to Lucy are shocking in their violence and in their sexual subtext -- especially when, at one point, he is threatening to beat her with a whip, held at waist level, when Lucy cries, "Oh, look! Your shoes are dirty!" and gets down on her knees in front of him to clean them off.

But no matter how brutish and monstrous Griffith made Battling Burrows, it seemed he could still not rely on audiences, nor himself, to be on the Chinaman's side, especially with the white woman lying on his bed and all. Deep-seated fears of mysogyny must be assuaged in some way. And it is in doing so that the film ultimately exposes its own racist viewpoints.

First, a white guy is cast in the role of the Yellow Man. This calms everyone on at least one point: whatever takes place in the story, audiences could take comfort in the fact that a real Chinaman wouldn't be groping their delicate Lillian Gish.

Secondly, in the story itself, Lucy is repulsed by the Yellow Man. When he dresses her wounds, she keeps stiff and alert. When later, he leans in closer for a kiss, she recoils. The look of disgust and horror on her face leaves no doubt that she would not for a moment entertain the notion of kissing any Chinaman in town, no matter how friendly. He doesn't push the issue, and kisses her sleeve instead. The intertitles remind everyone not to worry, because "His love is a pure thing -- even his worst foes say this."

And so the message of tolerance is completely demolished. It could have been a picture about inter-racial relationships and the prejudices of most of the country against them, but Griffith was unable to make such a film, proving his detractors largely correct. Instead, it is a picture about a sad, lonely Chinese man who fantasizes about being with a white woman and pays for it with his life. How would audiences have reacted to the story had the Yellow Man been intimate with Lucy? Had Lucy been ready and willing? Most likely the thought never crossed the filmmakers minds. And so Burrows is a villain because he kills Lucy because of a mistaken impression he had that she slept with the Yellow Man. And so the Yellow Man could be justified in taking revenge on Burrows by taking his life. But still, the Yellow Man had transgressed too much, and he too must pay for it with his own life, and if the lynch mob doesn't get there in time, why, he can just do it himself.

All things considered, Broken Blossoms is an impressive, though occasionally offensive, piece of filmmaking. Those interested in the history of American cinema, or more particularly in the history of Asian depictions in American cinema, would be well rewarded to see this film. It is a work of art, it is also a product of its times.

Rating: Recommended (Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on April 19, 2004.

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