Film Chronology – Broken Blossoms (1919)
by RISHI AGRAWAL
After watching two historical epics by D.W. Griffith, it was refreshing to watch a smaller, more intimate film. Though Broken Blossoms is a departure from Griffith’s earlier films, it has a lot of lovely and moving moments. This is a love story set in the Limehouse district of London, with its eerily beautiful fog. Broken Blossoms was filmed on movie sets, but Griffith showed that he could reel in his sense of place and purpose to a smaller scale.
The love affair in film is between Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish) and Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess). Lucy is the daughter of a pugilist named Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp), a cruel father, who frequently drinks and then beats Lucy. Cheng Huan came to England to bring Buddhism to the West, but instead finds himself a shop owner in London. Cheng Huan is referred to as “The Yellow Man” in the title cards, and we only know his name because it is on his store. After a particularly brutal beating, Lucy collapses on Huan’s doorstep, and he shows her some kindness and tenderness that she has never known before. Battling Burrows is furious when he finds out, leading to an inevitably tragic conclusion.
The love between Lucy and Huan is gentle and moving. As this film was made in 1919, there is no sex or kissing, or even much touching between the two of them, but you can see how much affection they have for each other. We cannot help but feel deeply for Lucy, with her forlorn innocence, and Huan’s stoic demeanor and soft nature wins us over as well. After watching Griffith’s other films, it is nice to see a tightly woven narrative that does not stray from its focus.
Unfortunately, the film does suffer from racism. As I noted earlier, Huan is referred to as “The Yellow Man” in the title cards as well as “chink.” The film portrays the Chinese as opium smokers who think that people in the West are barbarians. The actor who plays Huan is not even Asian, but a white man in makeup.
In Griffith’s defense, the stereotypes were normal and even acceptable in 1919 and the racial epithets did not have the same connotations in those days. Besides, Griffith meant well. The film’s opening scenes take place in China, and Griffith goes out of his way to show the Chinese as people who are noble and not that different from Westerners. In fact, in the opening scenes, the Americans are painted in the most unfavorable light, with sailors being shown as rude and belligerent. And how many filmmakers of that era would take the chance to portray an interracial love story? This film likely opened some eyes and its intentions were in the right place.
I think that Griffith’s main accomplishment in this film was creating a sense of place and atmosphere. I already mentioned the fog and Griffith makes each location in the film feel specific and unique. For example, Huan’s apartment above his store conveys a sense of sanctuary with an exotic flavor. When Battling Burrows enters the apartment, the safety we feel from that location is disrupted. In contrast, the Burrows’ residence is a place with no privacy and is associated with Lucy’s subjugation. Even in her own home, she has to keep a hidden cache of tin foil, which she hopes to exchange for flowers. I think Griffith had an eye for these kinds of details in his earlier films as well, but a lot of the smaller moments get swept aside in the wake of the epic storyline. Besides, especially in a film like Intolerance, there are so many characters and subplots, the details are difficult to appreciate, because, in the end, they are irrelevant to the big picture.
The funny thing about Broken Blossoms is, although it is my favorite Griffith film of the three that I watched, it seems atypical of his style. Griffith is still watched today because of his exciting action sequences, the epic scope of his films and his innovative techniques. The techniques are still used in Broken Blossoms, but in a more subtle manner. I know that Griffith has had other major films, most notably Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm, which I won’t be watching for Film Chronology, but I think each of the films I watched are interesting for different reasons. The Birth of a Nation is the most historically significant film, being the film that was largely responsible for creating the American love affair with the movies. Intolerance probably showed off Griffith’s technical achievements the best of all his films. Though the film has major flaws, the action sequences and elaborate sets are something to behold. However, from an artistic or dramatic perspective, Broken Blossoms surpasses the other two films. Though it may not be a typical Griffith film, it remains one of his best.
Up next in Film Chronology: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari