Broken Blossoms (1919)

A young Chinese Buddhist, Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess), travels to London to spread positivity. Meanwhile, a middle aged white boxer, Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp), spends his time drinking and beating his daughter, Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish).

Dark & Claustrophobic

D.W. Griffith’s 1919 film, Broken Blossoms is based on The Chink and the Child by Thomas Burke. A sad look at intolerance towards Chinese immigration and the depressed state of affairs in Limehouse district in London. Broken Blossoms features both a dark atmosphere as well as a dark story line. The interior shots throughout the film are dark, claustrophobic, and cluttered. The characters appear trapped as though they are in a cage. These confined interior shots are met with equally constricted exterior shots. Characters that travel through the city are framed by dark buildings.

The dark and trapped atmosphere helps establish the background to the hopelessly trapped Lucy and Cheng. Both of these characters are victims of circumstance. For Lucy, it is the brutal treatment from her father. Through no fault of her own, she is trapped in an abusive relationship.

The claustrophobia builds throughout the film until culminating in the climax of the film. Desperate, Lucy screams for help and claws at the walls of the closet as her father tries to break in. A similar state of affairs as seen in The Shining and The Phantom Carriage.

The Closet Scene

Cheng on the other hand is a kind and well-intentioned Buddhist that wishes to teach lessons of gentleness to western civilization. A desire sparked by being unable to squelch tensions between two western sailors before they start a brawl. Cheng makes the journey to London where he is met with racism and prejudice.

The love story between Cheng and Lucy develops quickly. Cheng notices her as she peeks in to his shop window. He is stricken by her “tear aged face”. He becomes infatuated with her and wishes to protect her. The love story between Cheng and Lucy is inappropriate, since she is sixteen years old. Although, the relationship is not sexual, it is instead focused on compassion. Each of them are in need for liberation from the abuse in their life.

Tragedy Towards Innocents

Neither of them are able to escape the hardships and abuse. Lucy is able to find refuge in Cheng’s shop after a beating by her father, Battling Burrows. Once Burrows finds out that she is staying with Cheng, he is sent into a rage. Burrows’ hatred for immigrants fueling his violent plan of retribution.

The innocents in Broken Blossoms are unable to make it out alive. Burrows finds Lucy and brings her home. Cheng goes after them, bu is too late. By the time he gets there, Lucy has been beaten within an inch of death. Cheng kills Burrows and takes Lucy back to his house where she dies and he kills himself. The resulting crime scene would not be in poor Cheng’s favor.

Role Reversal

It is interesting that Griffith chose to make a film where the villain is an alcoholic and abusive white guy and the hero is a sincerely kind Buddhist Chinese man. This is surprising due to the prevalence of hatred towards people of Chinese decent in the Western world at the time, as well as the stark thematic difference from Griffith’s previous film The Birth of a Nation.

Broken Blossom’s message of the horrors of intolerance and the unjust violence towards innocents becomes a silver lining in an otherwise hopeless film. The grotesque treatment of Lucy and attitudes towards Cheng, make it clear how wrong these kinds of behaviors can be. The film would have been widely seen, given Griffith’s stature at the time. Thus, exposing the film’s themes to a wide audience. An audience that would have been greatly influenced by anti-Chinese rhetoric in the news.

Yellow Peril

Anti-Chinese sentiments began to flourish in the mid to late 19th Century. Stemmed from mass immigration across the western world. Economic conditions in China were poor in the mid 19th century, driving many to flee. The US was also experiencing the gold rush, which caused an influx of immigration. The desperate situation of immigrants made them more willing to work for low wages. Sparking fear and hatred and leading to an existential crises for citizens of the western world.

This fear and hatred was fueled by the media, an era known as Yellow Peril and a style known as Yellow Journalism. A major player in this rhetoric was William Randolph Hearst, of newspaper magnate fame.

This fear formed a background of many films of the era, for example: The Cheat (1915). This backdrop of hatred makes Broken Blossoms stand out even more. To make a film where the Chinese man is the respectable hero and the white guy is the drunk villain is a breath of fresh air. Even though, Cheng was played by a white guy in makeup.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Directed by: D.W. Griffith

Cinematography: G.W. Bitzer

Based on the Novel “The Chink and the Child” by: Thomas Burke

Written by: D.W. Griffith

Editing By: James Smith

Starring: Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, and Donald Crisp.

Runtime: 1h 29m

Genre: Drama, Romance

Distributed by: United Artists

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