As a young man, I read as much about the history of film as was possible. There were a lot of books on movies (a lot of them frankly appalling) around in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In fact, there were more books on movies than movies themselves. This often resulted in reading about a movie years before there was even the slightest chance of seeing it. One of the problems with this was that one often tended to develop a grandiose notion of hard-to-see titles based on evocative photographs and the unverifiable praise of authors. The upshot was that a lot of these undisputed movie classics were crashing disappointments when finally seen. That pretty much describes what happened in the case of D.W. Griffith movies and me. Nowhere is this truer than with his 1919 production Broken Blossoms—a film that, for me, worked far better as something to read about than to actually see. The fact is that so much about the film has drifted into legend and its numerous problems have been so glossed over that the film itself is almost bound to suffer.
For starters, people can praise the Lillian Gish performance all they want, but it doesn’t change the fact that the 25-year-old Gish (looking easily 35) is hardly believable as a 15-year-old Cockney waif. And nothing will change the unbridled melodrama of the story, its lapses into pure saccharine and the simple fact that it was made in 1919. Let’s face it, 1919 movies are rather crude—even by the standards of films made only a few years later. But the point of interest is that this is a 1919 film, and while a lot of it is clunky in the extreme, there are moments that are astonishing—both technically and thematically.
Griffith treads some pretty inflammatory territory here with the story of a doomed (we’re talking opera-level doomed) romance between an Asian missionary (Richard Barthelmess, billed only as “The Yellow Man”) and a 15-year-old girl, Lucy (Gish), who has spent her life being abused by her brutish father, a boxer called Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp). The material is made that much more inflammatory by an ironic scene in which a white missionary tells “The Yellow Man” how his brother is going to the Orient to try to convert the heathen. (That “The Yellow Man” carries only a message of love and peace, while his white counterpart offers hellfire and brimstone, was pretty bold.) Large chunks of the film work, and Griffith is here more in control of his usual ragged editing. Granted, even though the film is reasonably enlightened, there are hints of racism, but it needs to be judged within the context of its time. I’m not personally offended by Lucy’s intertitle that reads, “What makes you so good to me, Chinky?” However, its insertion into an otherwise tender and subtle scene completely destroys the atmosphere.
It’s an important film that should be seen, but it’s hardly the flawless masterpiece it’s often hailed as.
Trivia side note: I’ve been told that Crisp’s performance as Battling Burrows was the guiding influence behind Willis O’Brien’s approach to King Kong. Knowing that, it’s easy to see that Kong’s expressions and movements are almost an exact duplicate of Burrows’—though Kong is perhaps a little more subtle.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke