Filmsite Movie Review
Broken Blossoms (1919)
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Broken Blossoms (1919) is director D. W. Griffith's most tragic, serious, poetic, intricate, and melodramatic film. Griffith, considered the first master of feature film directors, made this powerful screen masterpiece. This silent film tells the story of a mystical, fragile romance in London's foggy slums between a young, gentle, opium-addicted Chinese man (Cheng Huan) and an illegitimate Cockney waif (Lillian Gish), who is abused and ultimately killed by her brutish, bigoted prize-fighting father. The purest dreams of the couple, both 'broken blossoms', are destroyed by sordid reality of racism. [The film's tale, in part, inspired director Federico Fellini's classic drama La Strada (1954) with three similar character roles.]

Its small-scale, fragile and sensitive nature was a surprise to audiences, because this soft-focus, ethereal film was a sharp contrast to Griffith's earlier epic films (all with Lillian Gish in varying roles) - the controversial blockbuster and monumental The Birth of a Nation (1915), the spectacular Intolerance (1916) and his extravagant World War I film shot on location in France and England, Hearts of the World (1918).

The film was adapted from a story taken from Thomas Burke's book Limehouse Nights. Lillian Gish's unforgettable performance brought intense critical acclaim to the film, although its main subject areas include child abuse, an inter-racial love affair (one of its first film renderings), drug use, racial bigotry, and murder motivated by revenge.

The major portion of the action of the film is theatrically-based and contained almost entirely on two small interior sets (a first for Griffith who had previously used exterior sets and location shooting almost exclusively) to emphasize the limits of space and time. The soft-focus photography of cinematographer Henrick Sartov was responsible for its delicate and vivid visual style, superb tinting and toning, and stylized lighting. The film was shot in less than three weeks on a very modest budget, but it was remarkably successful, both critically and financially.

Plot Synopsis

The film, titled Broken Blossoms, and subtitled "The Yellow Man and the Girl," introduces the allegorical nature of its three main protagonists in its cast list - an innocent, an idealist, and a strongman brute:

  • Lucy, The Girl (23 year-old Lillian Gish as a 15 year-old girl)
  • The Yellow Man (Richard Barthelmess, a Caucasian actor playing a Chinese character)
  • Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp)

The minor characters include the Evil Eye (Edward Peil), The Spying One (George Beranger), and a Prizefighter (Norman Selby).

The prologue sets the stage for the romantic tragedy:

It is a tale of temple bells, sounding at sunset before the image of Buddha; it is a tale of love and lovers; it is a tale of tears.

We may believe there are no Battling Burrows, striking the helpless with brutal whip - but do we not ourselves use the whip of unkind words and deeds? So, perhaps, Battling may even carry a message of warning.

The film begins in China: "At the turn-stiles of the East - The bund of a great Chinese treaty port." In the busy Chinese shopping district are young girls, a family, and "sky-larking American sailors." An idealistic young Chinese man, a Buddhist acolyte known only as the Yellow Man, contemplates a mission to England:

The Yellow Man in the Temple of Buddha, before his contemplated journey to a foreign land.

A mentor Buddhist priest speaks to him with parental words of advice:

Advice for a young man's conduct in the world - word for word such as a fond parent or guardian of our own land would give.

The young missionary is spiritually educated and prepared to embark to a new world after leaving China, to uplift the English race:

The Yellow Man holds a great dream to take the glorious message of peace to the barbarous Anglo-Saxons, sons of turmoil and strife.

In the marketplace, the Yellow Man finds the same American sailors arguing with each other. He steps between them and preaches the non-violent Golden Rule from Buddha, bringing them the peace of his Eastern religious beliefs:

Do not give blows for blows. The Buddha says: 'What thou dost not want others to do to thee, do thou not to others.'

Ignoring his help, they commence fighting even more vigorously, knocking him down: "Just a sociable free fight for the Jackies - but the sensitive Yellow Man shrinks in horror...The Yellow Man more than ever convinced that the great nations across the sea need the lessons of the gentle Buddha."

On "the day set for his departure for foreign shores," the Yellow Man is carted in a rick-shaw to the wharf, nodding blessings at people passing by. The young Chinese man journeys to London's Limehouse section - a foggy waterfront district. [It is the principal exterior set of the film.]

Then, a considerable period of time passes for the Buddhist emissary in a riverside shop. "Early morning in the Limehouse district of London, some years later." Rows of storefronts line the dock, including the Yellow Man's shop (the shop sign reads "Cheng Huan"). The enclosed space of the confining universe of the district around his curio shop is circumscribed by archways at the rear, unadorned and weathered cobblestone streets, and opposing shops on the other side of the street. The fog hides the reality of life for many inhabitants in the area.

Now - Limehouse knows him only as a Chink store-keeper.

Ravaged by drug abuse after becoming disillusioned, his mission has failed both personally and spiritually. The Yellow Man huddles against the brick wall outside his shop, hunched forward in a caved-in posture while hugging both sides of his chest, and reflecting a melancholy gaze in his drug-hooded eyes. He introspects and dreams of how his life has been shattered:

The Yellow Man's youthful dreams come to wreck against the sordid realities of life...Broken bits of his life in his new home.

His life has unraveled in an opium den of the Anglo-Saxon West, where he smokes the deadly drug: "Chinese, Malays, Lascars, where the Orient squats at the portals of the West." Rhetorically, the next title card asks:

In this scarlet house of sin, does he ever hear the temple bells?

Chinese addicts gamble together, consulting: "Fantan, the Goddess of Chance." The peace-loving Yellow Man watches helplessly when two gamblers feud over their game.

The other part of the story is intercut here, with an introduction to "the home of Lucy and Battling Burrows." The area where they live is in the same district, shown with views of a misty, jumbled dockside. An anonymous figure, like Sisyphus, endlessly saws on a block of wood by the water.

Fifteen years before one of the Battler's girls thrust into his arms a bundle of white rags - So Lucy came to Limehouse.

The fifteen-year-old illegitimate Lucy entered her father's life as an infant, handed to her father by one of his female conquests. Battling Burrows is described as a brute of a father, a sadistic professional boxer who drinks to celebrate his latest victory:

Battling Burrows, an abysmal brute - a gorilla of the jungles of East London - gloating on his victory over the "Limehouse Tiger."

In his brick, wharf-side hovel decorated only with sparse furnishings, Burrows thinks about the recent prizefight (filmed in semi-documentary fashion) when he knocked his opponent to the floor in front of a cheering crowd. Burrows' fight manager (Arthur Howard) wants his champion to live a healthier lifestyle, and nags him to give up booze and loose women. After being berated, Burrows takes out his rage on Lucy, "a weaker object":

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.

The Girl is introduced at the dock, a winsome street waif with a "bruised little body." She is hunched over, presumably from all the beatings she has received for every imaginable infraction dreamed up by her father. [The Yellow Man and Lucy are stylistically linked together as outcasts, hunched over to seek introspective refuge from the hostile realities and fears of the world - cold, loneliness, and hunger. The groundwork for their affinity for each other has been well-established long before they actually meet.]

When not serving as a punching bag to relieve the Battler's feelings, the bruised little body may be seen creeping around the docks of Limehouse.

A sorrowful, downtrodden, and victimized figure, she sits on a large coiled rope on the wharf. In a classic, soft-focus pose, Lucy grips her shawl around her shoulders, leans off center to her right, and stares off into the inhospitable space of Limehouse. Her inner world opens up and she depressingly contemplates the warnings she has been given by weary housewives and prostitutes. Their suggestions, that she avoid both matrimony and selling her body, offer no other possible avenues of escape in her future:

Lucy's surroundings have not been the most cheerful. - A married acquaintance has told her, 'Whatever you do, dearie, don't get married.' Warned as strongly by the ladies of the street against their profession.

Brutalized by her father, she creeps around, doomed to having a futile and tragic existence: "In every group there is one, weaker than the rest - the butt of uncouth wit or ill-temper. Poor Lucy is one of these." When she enters her windowless home, "Lucy, as usual, receives the Battler's pent up brutishness." While looking at her abusive father, her hands nervously twist her shawl and her tiny mouth curls in unison. She begs her father not to whip her as he circles the table after her: "Don't whip me - don't! Please, Daddy! - Don't!"

Lucy is unable to smile with the ever-present threat of her terrorizing father's domination, but he orders her to:

Put a smile on yer face, can't yer?

Poetically, she transforms herself with a vivid gesture to give him a pitiful, forced smile: "Poor Lucy, never having cause to smile, uses this pitiful excuse instead." With an inventive finger-induced smile, produced by pushing up the sides of her mouth with two fingers, she satisfies his demands by substituting a symbolic smile for a real one.

The brute demands immediate service for his dinner, treating her like a lowly servant or slave. "She has to wait - " quietly standing by the table as he gorges himself and then picks his teeth, displaying poor table manners. "He orders his tea for five o'clock" and then asks his cowering daughter: "Come on - give us a smile." Her fingers hesitantly move up to her chin and then to her mouth, where she pushes the ends up with her fingers, but her eyes reveal pain and pent-up terror underneath. After he leaves, she eats the remains from his plate for her dinner.

Two Anglican clergymen outside the Yellow Man's shop speak about a mission to China for the younger minister:

Older clergyman: My brother leaves for China tomorrow to convert the heathen.
Yellow Man: I - I wish him luck.

And then as if to practice on the 'heathen,' the Yellow Man is handed a booklet entitled "Hell." He receives it graciously without changing his expression.

After darning one of her father's socks, Lucy prepares for a "shopping trip" with a few coins given to her by her father for groceries. From under a brick in the floor, she removes a wrapped keep-sake that she has hoarded. The precious items include a crumpled piece of tin foil, a piece of silk and a ribbon, given to her with a note:

This ain't much but all I got to leave you. You might find them some use for your weddin. The piece of silk and the ribbon...

Lucy decorates her hair with the ribbon and pitifully hopes that the shiny foil may be traded for a flower to brighten her grim world: "Enough tin foil might get something extra."

She walks with a stooped-over posture down the street, pausing in front of the Yellow Man's shop window. Inside, he is smoking opium with a long pipe in a shot similar to the one in the opium den, his mind entering into a drug-induced state. She finds another shiny piece of tin foil on the pavement. Through his shop window, the Yellow Man silently observes, notices and adores her as he had often done in the past. She is his only joy and beauty in life:

The Yellow Man watched Lucy often. The beauty which all Limehouse missed smote him to the heart.

"This child with tear-aged face - ." One of the play dolls in the shop window catches her eye. In an exquisite close-up, with back lighting and soft focus, Lucy's angelic face becomes an idealistic vision for the Yellow Man. Ominously, "Evil Eye also watches" from nearby.

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