A review of Broken Blossoms

By Daniel Garrett

Broken Blossoms
Director: David Wark Griffith
Featuring: Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Donald Crisp
D.W. Griffith Productions, Paramount Pictures, 1919

David Wark Griffith’s Broken Blossoms, or the Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) is about a girl abused by her father, a girl who knows little joy until she meets a Chinese shopkeeper who befriends her; and the film’s themes, which encompass the differences between east and west, spirituality and materialism, and compassion and brutality, remain interesting; and the film’s narrative movement gains in complexity; and the film’s compositions—dynamic frames featuring expressive actors in settings full of detail—make compelling viewing. David W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms, written by Griffith and Thomas Burke (based on a story by Burke), stars Lillian Gish as the girl Lucy Burrows, a somewhat stagy Donald Crisp as the cruel father Battling Burrows, a fighter by profession, and Richard Barthelmess as Cheng Huan, the kind immigrant shopkeeper. Broken Blossoms is one of D. W. Griffith’s better-known films: along with Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. The silent film Broken Blossoms, featuring written dialogue and commentary, has aged fairly well: although there were a few scenes of a boat on the water that seemed too opaque to me, and some of the movements in the fights scenes were a little jerky, and some of the narration might be considered too emphatically poetic, now, by some people; much of the film is very attractive to look at, entrancing, and a provocation for the mind. The terrible ending—showing us relentless cruelty and heartbreak—is one of tragic symbolism. Broken Blossoms is a film worthy of its great reputation. I feel lucky to have been able to see the film at a July, Sunday afternoon screening in Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art.

Broken Blossoms explores character and circumstances. What is character? Is it consistent, and deep-rooted, or merely opportunistic? Are we who we are because of temperament (mind, feeling, values), instincts, or context? It is a fact that we can surprise ourselves as well as others. In a new place, do we act as we expect, as we intend? Or do we submit to circumstance? The Chinese immigrant Cheng Huan has respectable intentions that he does not live out, as he expected to, when he arrives in England. He does express compassion but it is more practical than philosophical (as when he takes care of the girl Lucy); and in participating in first violence and then the ultimate form of self-destruction he acts in ways that are the very opposite of his established, formal philosophy (Buddhism).

The film Broken Blossoms opens with acknowledgement of spiritual practice—temple bells before Buddha—and a comment that although the story may seem strange in its depiction of cruelty, it may have something to do with our own cruelty. We see a Chinese port city and a bustling street scene, a surprisingly cosmopolitan setting where American sailors can be found, eating and drinking. A Chinese man, Cheng Huan, with spiritual ideas is in a temple talking to a monk, getting advice for his planned trip to the west to spread the message of Buddha: he is receiving advice for his personal conduct. The traveler wants to work for communication between cultures. It is an admirable idea, a naïve idea, a timeless idea, a troublesome idea. We see the genuflection of monks, incense burning. Outside the traveler Cheng Huan speaks with American sailors and there is a fight—he is hit by one of the sailors, but, following the teaching of Buddha, Cheng Huan refuses to return blows for blows (a teaching similar to that of Jesus Christ). The fight is an appropriate bit of foreshadowing for what is to come when the traveler finds himself in London. There, in the Limehouse area of London, he has no status: his exalted spiritual concerns mean nothing—and soon, his dream shaken by reality, he spends his time with other Asian people who have no significant place in the society—talking, playing and listening to music, and smoking in a “scarlet house of sin.” He and his associates have given themselves over, in many ways, to the “goddess of chance,” to games and gambling.

Meanwhile, in the “jungles of East London” the prize-fighter Battling Burrows (he seems to have a cauliflower ear, an ear damaged by his tough profession) is criticized by his manager for Burrows’s inclination to drink and carouse with women. Battling Burrows’s daughter Lucy is the result of one of Burrows’s assignations with women; and Burrows did not marry Lucy’s mother—and, though it is not said, I wondered if he had a doubt about her paternity (which might explain his lack of family feeling). The fighter takes out his frustrations on his daughter, the slim, short, fragile fifteen-years old Lucy (Lillian Gish’s size, as much as her vulnerability, is what makes her believable as the daughter: in terms of face, she is not, obviously, as young as the story tells us she is). Lucy has a mostly lonely existence—she visits with a married and hard-working friend who warns her against marriage and children; and ladies of the street, prostitutes, warn her against their trade too. What is Lucy to do? What can become of her in the world in which she lives? When she arrives home and finds her father drinking and agitated, she begs him not to whip her. He insists that she smile, something she does not have the spirit to do out of pleasure or joy (she uses her fingers to help her lips move). She watches him eat the meal she has prepared, and then she eats his leftovers.

Sentimentality surrounds the subject of family—the assumed love and good intentions of parents for their children, and the love and respect of children for their parents. Parents are supposed to be nurturing and wise—neither of which is Battling Burrows. The film represents a fact—the fact that families sometimes involve conflict and brutality—that goes against sentimentality.

It is an irony when the Chinese immigrant Cheng Huan is told that a religious minister is going to China to spread the word of spiritual redemption, the spiritual philosophy of Christ, to the heathens: we have seen now how much the west needs that spiritual instruction. (It is impossible not to concur that everyone thinks he has the answer for everyone else.) Cheng Huan is given a pamphlet about Hell—he looks at it, and I would not have been surprised to find that it was a map of London.

Philosophy is analysis, ethical consideration, explication of text, exploration of problems, insight, literature, logic, perception, proposition, rhetoric, speculation, and wisdom—it is fact, thought, and possibility. Faced with the chaotic and complex elements of life, we come to philosophy—and we use it as balm, and we use it as a tool to help us manage our response to reality. However, sometimes, we find that no matter how rich, or how supple, our philosophy, reality can maneuver beyond it. The contradictions of human nature, and the conflicts of human society, are often beyond human control. In Broken Blossoms, a man (Cheng Huan) has received philosophical instruction for personal and social use and he finds himself and his philosophy inadequate to the reality he finds in a new place, London.

In Broken Blossoms, Lucy is sensitive. Is that her nature; or is that only because she is faced with a brutal power in the form of her father? Lucy unwraps a small, mother-bequeathed package containing a letter, a ribbon, silk, a few of the only things precious to her. She gathers her coins and tin foil to go out and make purchases; and she is observed by Cheng Huan, who finds her interesting. “The spirit of Beauty breaks her blossoms all about his chamber,” we are told. The two, Lucy and Cheng Huan, see each other; and a character called Evil Eye also sees them—and Cheng Huan prevents Evil Eye from accosting Lucy. (Evil Eye may represent the amoral perspective and energy of the world—sometimes exploitive, sometimes benevolent.) Lucy goes home, and Cheng Huan follows her, presumably out of curiosity and possibly to see she has safe passage—but he does not see what goes on in her home, that she is whipped by her father, though she pleads with her father not to whip her and even cleans her father’s boot with her dress, an act of supplication. Having been whipped, and weakened, Lucy is distraught, and wanders outside until she falls into Cheng Huan’s shop. Cheng Huan tends her wounds. They gaze at each other, and almost kiss. (Kindness opens the possibility of love, though the two are different ages. Gish’s performance is both sensitive and vibrant, and Barthelmess suggests a restrained awareness.) Cheng Huan takes her to a private room upstairs, where she can rest, and gives her a nice robe to wear (and later a doll). We are told that he identifies with her (an interesting idea, a suggestion of empathy, of spiritual insight). She asks “Chinky” about the root of his goodness; and while she sleeps he does a poetic mime dance near where she sleeps. He plays flute for her while she eats. Unfortunately, a friend of Lucy’s father Battling Burrows visits the shop and discovers her there and tells her father (though he does business with Cheng Huan, the friend is suspicious of the Chinese man, and ignorant of, or indifferent to, the pain Lucy’s father is causing her). Battling Burrows is offended by the idea of the Chinese man’s association with his daughter; and plans to go to the man’s shop after his fight, which is well-staged, with many jittery men watching the fight, throwing punches in vicarious participation. (When Lucy and Cheng Huan are alone, although there is a moment of doubt and tension when it seems that physical attraction between Lucy and Cheng Huan might be acted on, the relation between the immigrant and girl remains chaste.) Battling Burrows wins his fight and returns home and after he sees the girl is not there, he goes to Cheng Huan’s shop, when Cheng Huan is out, and Battling Burrows confronts the girl, who says she did nothing wrong. Burrows wrecks the room—this is very convincing violence.

Many very intelligent people do not think that separate races exist. Beliefs regarding differences in “race” have inspired suspicion, condemnation, and violence. Whether or not race actually exists is not a question that has been resolved in every mind, although it is a cliché, much repeated, that there is only one race, the human race. Often, however, to account for differences in manner—say, restrained versus expressive, intellectual versus emotional—many people resort to race as an explanation: “that’s how those people are.” When someone is different and lacks the power to compel respect, he or she is likely to be vulnerable to the confusions in other people’s minds, and the hostility in their hearts; and the same thing happens to groups of people who lack power. When people who are “different,” and with little money or social power, come to a new place, usually they come under suspicion (see the history of the Irish and the Italians in America, of the African in France, of the Muslim in northern Europe). If immigrants fail to observe the social rules or laws, though desperate poverty might be the true culprit, their transgressions are sometimes, often times, seen as a matter of fundamental cultural, ethnic, or moral difference—as a matter of race. It is frequently the case that impoverishment makes one more vulnerable to temptation, to the more amoral and destructive possibilities in human nature and human society. Battling Burrows is offended by his daughter’s association with a Chinese man—and although Burrows does not know this particular man, his good or bad character, Burrows’s assumptions are negative.

In Broken Blossoms, Evil Eye finds and tells Cheng Huan about the visit of Battling Burrows to Cheng Huan’s shop and room; and then Cheng Huan sees the girl gone, and sees the wreckage of his place. Lucy, at home, locks herself in a closet to avoid a whipping. Cheng Huan takes a gun with him when he goes out to find Lucy. Lucy’s father takes a hatchet to the closet door; and he whips Lucy to death. When Cheng Huan arrives he sees Lucy dead and her father picks up the hatchet to attack Cheng Huan, and Cheng Huan shoots Burrows; then, Cheng Huan takes Lucy’s body back to his own place, lights a candle before Buddha, and grieving Cheng Huan kills himself. It is a devastating story of one man’s hope to do good in a foreign city.

Cities are organizations of industries, government forces, and private individuals. The vulnerability of Lucy to her own father and the inability of the Chinese immigrant to positively fulfill himself suggest the limits of city life and values.

Is it fair to think of philosophy as the sometimes desperate, sometimes dignified, attempt to affirm human existence and to impose meaning and order on human existence?

Can we become better people? Or must we capitulate to the worst in human nature and human society? There are no final answers to these questions. Each life answers them anew—and, strangely, terrifyingly, many answer them anew and differently every year, every day.

Daniel Garrett, Louisiana-born and a longtime New York resident, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the founder of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, is a writer of essays and creative work, including fiction, drama, and poetry. His work has appeared in The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, PopMatters.com, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. For IdentityTheory.com, Daniel Garrett wrote about the work of novelist James Baldwin, film director Eric Rohmer, rapper Tupac Shakur, and the music band Kitchens of Distinction; and for Offscreen he wrote about films such as Boesman and Lena, Dirty Pretty Things, I Love Huckabees, Dogville, Father and Son, Moolaade, Paradise Now, Syriana, Walk on Water and Yes, as well as about books on Charlie Chaplin and on Chinese and Palestinian films. For a journal on philosophy and film, Cinetext (or Cinetext.Philo.at), Garrett wrote about Carl Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc, Terrence Malick’s The New World, and the documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars, as well as a comprehensive survey article on popular film art. And, for The Compulsive Reader, Daniel Garrett has written on music, films, and books. (Daniel Garrett’s “Notes on David Wark Griffith’s Broken Blossoms” was completed while contemplating the kindnesses of two women, Lue Delia Fisher and Pearl Alexander.)
Author contact: dgarrett31@hotmail.com or d.garrett.writer@gmail.com