Broken Blossoms (1919)

D.W. Griffith | 1hr 30min

Four years after D.W. Griffith’s racially-charged The Birth of a Nation, and three years after Intolerance’s doubling down, he finally came out with an apology – but even in Broken Blossoms he can’t help but fall prey to using a few racial slurs and a distasteful display of yellowface. This romantic drama is as much an expression of Griffith’s simplistic ideologies as anything else he has made, clumsy navigating contemporary issues of race while boiling conflicts of good and evil down into archetypes that stretch back to the roots of human storytelling. At the same time, it is in these fables where he is at his most powerful as a filmmaker, offering compassion to Chinese immigrant Cheng Huan in Broken Blossoms and depicting his interracial romance with Londoner Lucy Burrows as a pure, wholesome love. Though he is an established master of monumental epics, Griffith drastically dials his scope and scale right back in this silent tragedy, and in doing so he crafts his most affectingly intimate film to date.

Still, this does not mean that there are no elaborate sets to be found in Broken Blossoms at all. The Chinese architecture of Cheng’s hometown is handsomely mounted in gardens, temples, and busy streets, tinted with a light purple hue that stands out against the duller colours of London. There, shadows stretch down alleyways, brick walls arch over bumpy streets, and rickety wooden buildings line the river that Lucy waddles along after receiving a beating from her bigoted father, Battling Burrows. Meanwhile, Cheng is only finding adversity and prejudice in this city, with his idealistic mission of spreading Buddhism to England becoming little more than a lost dream in the haze of crowded opium dens. It is no Intolerance, but Griffith’s eye for detail in his sets brings both warmth and melancholy to his characters’ journeys, especially when Lucy finds refuge in a small, warm room tucked away above the streets – Cheng’s home.

A solid contrast between the Chinese and British sets – refined, traditional architecture versus the industrial wood and brick of London.

There is something welcoming about the clutter of items spread across this sanctuary, giving it a homely feel. As tender affection sparks between the two outsiders, Griffith’s close-ups draw us into even more intimate frames, proving once again why he is a true pioneer of the artform beyond his largescale set pieces and editing. It is in these shots where the sweetness of both Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess’ performances sink in, gazing at each other with adoring, awestruck expressions. These parallel stories of hardship in London meet at an unlikely point of understanding, and though there is nothing physically consummated between them, Griffith’s melodramatic intertitles pour out saccharine, romantic expressions all the same.

“O lily flowers and plum blossoms! O silver streams and dim-starred skies!”

You can’t trace the evolution of close-ups in cinema without starting at D.W. Griffith. It is certainly a strength of both The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, but he explores the technique here in Broken Blossoms even more thoroughly.

The happiness that Lucy has only previously faked with two fingers pushing up a forced smile now comes entirely organically. Unfortunately, such bliss is short-lived. As news of her whereabouts gets back to her father and his anger rises, so too does Griffith’s parallel editing pick up as well, intercutting between the peace of Cheng’s shop and Battling’s violent boxing match, hyping himself up for what he has resolved is outright war. In the early years of cinema, Griffith alone possessed this kind of raw, cinematic energy that could vigorously alternate between scenes like a tennis match and, in this instance, implicitly foreshadow an impending demise.

From here, the terror of an oncoming fury only intensifies, with Griffith turning his close-ups away from expressions of romance and towards Battling’s menacing, wide-eyed face of bushy eyebrows and gritted teeth. Like a merciless monster, he steadily approaches the camera, just slightly off-centre in the frame. In a reverse shot, Gish’s fearful eyes are all we can see within the single strip of light across her face, and all the while Griffith keeps intercutting the scene with Cheng obliviously running errands on the street below.

The close-ups grow even more sophisticated as the narrative’s pace picks up as well – the fierce intimidation of Battling Burrows up against his daughter’s terror, illuminated with a single strip of light.

It is a momentum which is impressively kept up for quite a while, as Battling whisks his daughter back home and Cheng comes chasing after them, though not quite fast enough to catch up. Locking herself in a closet to escape her father’s rage, Lucy lets out demonic screams like a victim in a horror film, and within the camera’s tight framing, we are right there with her. It is said that not even Griffith was prepared for Gish’s writhing, shaking, and howling in this scene, which afterwards left a silence on set broken only by him uttering “My God, why didn’t you warn me you were going to do that?”.

Lillian Gish might as well be cinema’s first scream queen in this scene, flailing and shrieking inside the closet.

Cheng may be too late to save his love, but not to seek heartbroken revenge on her killer. This is tragedy through and through, right to the end of his own life which he takes with a knife to the chest, though not before taking Lucy’s body back home to China, where the philosophy of kindness that he preaches flourishes more than it ever did in London. In the final appearance of one especially strong motif, Griffith weaves back in the same shot which has connected Cheng at key points in his life back to his homeland and faith – a priest ringing a temple bell, with an ancient pagoda towering in the background. As he passes away, he rings his own tiny version, like an echo resonating with spiritual reverence. This may be a simple, familiar fable of ill-fated lovers, though such eloquent visual poetry refreshes these archetypes through crisp close-ups and propulsive editing, inviting the sort of intimacy that Griffith alone realised in these early years of cinema was uniquely suited to this young, nascent artform.

Griffith returns to this shot three times in Broken Blossoms, and the final one comes with Cheng’s tragic death. Beautiful form in this constant link back to China.

One Week is in the public domain, and available to watch on many free video sharing sites including YouTube.


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