Broken Blossoms (1919) – D.W. Griffith

I continue to explore some of the key works of D.W. Griffith with DK Book’s The Movie Book, and this time I dive into a fascinating tale that is perhaps best told through the silent format that marked Griffith’s time.

Be warned there is a lot of racism in this film. It’s in the title. Perhaps not Broken Blossoms, but in it’s also known as title… The Yellow Man and the Girl.

Lillian Gish stars as the Girl, Lucy while Richard Barthelmess takes on the role of Cheng Huan.

The film and Huan start off hopeful enough. A Buddhist, Cheng is planning to travel to the west, London to spread a message of peace and understanding. However, an encounter with some American sailors before he leaves shows that he really isn’t ready for the mannerisms and behaviours of the western world.

The film springs forward several years, and we find Huan in London, in a down and out district. His message of hope and peace has long since left him. He runs a little shop, occasionally chases the dragon, and has eyes for a young woman, practically a girl, Lucy.

Lucy has problems of her own. Her father, Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp) is abusive, an alcoholic, a womaniser and a boxer. Trying to stay on the good side of his manager means he vents his anger out on his little girl.

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When she can take no more she flees, but collapses in Huan’s shop. He tends to her, looking after her, loving her as chastely as he can, but when word slips out of where his daughter is, Battling comes looking for trouble, and the tale ends sadly for all involved.

Despite the racial slurs (obviously reflective of the time, but still upsetting) the film is poignant, strongly crafted, and tells a story of two souls shattered against the realities of the world.

I think this is one of the early success stories of cinema, because of it’s silence. It forces the viewer to add their own voice, to interpret the performances, and the expressions, to feel the true power of the story.

Gish has this wonderful thing she does in a few scenes, in fact, it becomes a character trademark. We are told that she has nothing to smile about, nothing to find joy or cheer in, so when told, practically berated by her father to smile, she uses her fingers to push the corners of her mouth into position. It’s endearing, and incredibly telling for the character.

Of course, Huan couldn’t be played by anyone but a white man at the time, so he wears a cap throughout the film that hid a tight band to stretch his face, and angle his eyelids to make him look more Chinese. It’s unfortunate because there are a number of extras at the beginning of the film that could have pulled off the role easily.

It’s still a beautiful little film, just watch out for the racism. But don’t take my word for it, pick up The Movie Book from DK Books and dig through some of the amazing titles that can be found within its pages.

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