Here in the early stages of this Cinematic Century project I’m not really going to have a lot of options when it comes to which film is selected for each year. Because these early years typically only have one film that I’ve seen before, which kind of gets the position automatically. And today’s film is just such a case. Because there was only one film from 1919 that I’ve ever seen. Luckily, it’s a pretty fascinating film. Even though there are plenty of red flags when seen in a 2017 perspective. This comes both from the casting choices of the film, and from the director. Because this is a film from the infamous D.W. Griffith. I feel like today Griffith primarily is known for helming The Birth of a Nation, the influential but horrendous film that glorified the KKK. After The Birth of a Nation Griffith seemed dead set on creating films that served as direct responses to the racial reactions it garnered. He first attempted to move past this legacy with the massive and unwieldy Intolerance, but I feel like it’s today’s film, Broken Blossoms, that most tries to rehabilitate Griffith’s image. Because, despite being made by Griffith, despite featuring a white actor playing an Asian character who is frequently called the Yellow Man, and despite being based on a short story called “The Chink and the Child,” this is a surprisingly enlightened film with some fascinating insights into racism, love, and loneliness, which are made all the most fascinating with the knowledge that this film is a hundred years old.
Broken Blossoms tells the story of two people, the sad and abused Lucy, and a man the film insists on calling the Yellow Man, but who I insist on calling by his name, Cheng Huan. Cheng is a Chinese Buddhist who tries to live a peaceful and enlightened life, while spreading the good word of the Buddha. But when he comes in contact with some British sailors, who proceed to beat Cheng for essentially no reason, Cheng decides that the countries of the Western world need the teaching of the Buddha desperately. Cheng then sets sail for London, eventually settling into the Limehouse neighborhood, where he sees his fellow Chinese immigrant falling into lives of debauchery and sadness. And then there’s Lucy, a young woman who lives in the slums with her drunken boxer father Battling Burrows. Burrows is a short-tempered lout who routinely drinks too much and takes out his frustrations on poor Lucy.
Lucy and Cheng go about their lonely lives, drifting around London while finding no one who seems to be like them. Cheng sees the other Chinese immigrants become addicted to opium, or spend all of their time gambling, while he manages to open a humble shop. And Lucy wanders around the slums, avoiding her father’s wrath and speaking to other women, who all tell her not to be like they are. Wives tell her never to get married, mothers tell her never to have children, and prostitutes tell her never to become prostitutes. That last one is probably pretty good advice. But one day while wandering the streets Lucy comes across Cheng’s shop, and the two find that they seem to enjoy each other’s company. However, shortly after their meeting, Lucy has a horrible run-in with Battling Burrow, who beats her and sends her out into the streets. She wanders around, looking for aid, and eventually comes across Cheng and his shop.
Cheng bring Lucy into the small apartment above his shop, and begins taking care of her. The two then spend several days together, while Lucy regains her strength and Cheng cares to her every need. And over the days, the two becomes closer and closer, forging a deep friendship. However, one day a man enters Cheng’s shop, and while he’s working the man starts snooping around, and comes across Lucy in the apartment. Which is a terrible thing, because this man knows Battling Burrows. The man goes and tells Burrows, who becomes furious that his daughter is in some sort of relationship with a Chinese man. Burrows then sets off to find his daughter, and reaches Cheng’s shop while Cheng is out buying supplies. Burrows then flies into a rage, and destroys Cheng’s apartment before dragging Lucy back to their hovel. And once there, he starts beating Lucy. She briefly hides in a closet, but Burrows gets her, and continues to beat her until she falls unconscious. He then goes into the next room to drink himself into oblivion. Meanwhile, Cheng returns home and finds his apartment destroyed and Lucy gone. He begins looking all over for her, and ends up discovering her, dead, in her home. And as he mourns over her body, Burrows returns. The two have a tense standoff, but Cheng manages to shoot Burrows to death. He then takes Lucy’s body, and returns her to his apartment. Cheng performs some Buddhist rites, and realizes that there’s no hope for this world, and he commits suicide.
Broken Blossoms is not a particularly uplifting film. It’s a pretty unflinching look at the ugliness of the world, and showing that these ugly things never change. There’s always been hatred, loneliness, greed, and apathy in the world, and there will almost certainly always be.This is an incredibly intimate film, basically taking place on two sets, and digging in deep to the life of two of the loneliest people in the world. Which is quite a break from Griffith’s others works, with their indulgent and epic set design and massive stories. Griffith tired to show a sprawling tale of humanities intolerance towards each other in Intolerance, and then three years later followed it up with a similar story, but between three people. I’m really not sure if there was supposed t be a romance between Cheng and Lucy, primarily due to the fact that I couldn’t tell what age Lucy was supposed to be, but there was certainly a friendship blossoming in this film. Two people who have no one else in the world, whose hopes and dreams have been dashed, find each other, and forge some semblance of a relationship. This is heartbreaking film. And a very human one. You really get drawn into Lucy and Cheng’s lives, and feel their joys and sorrows. I haven’t really found myself to be a fan of Griffith’s larger scale films, but this story, in all of its intimate glory, really shows that under the penchant for lavish spectacle was a real storyteller.
There is another reason that I gravitated towards Broken Blossoms as my pick for 1919 though. And that’s to discuss the idea of historical context. I’ve talked about this a bit before on the website, but I think it’s something that can give people a lot of problems. Especially with people who tend to not watch many films from before they were born. Because times change. People overall don’t seem to, but our opinions change. What is unthinkable now could have been completely accepted years before. Such as race. We as a culture have obviously not solved the problem of racism, but it does seem like things have made some incremental changes. Which is why seeing this film, and seeing Richard Barthelmess, a white actor from New York, playing a character who the film calls the Yellow Man, feels pretty shocking in 2017. But, at the time, this wasn’t considered horrible. Hell, by portraying Cheng in a friendly light, and making him the hero of the movie would have been unthinkable. It doesn’t excuse the fact that they just had a white actor squint and decided that that made him an Asian, but it gives it some context. When you love film, and specifically want to go spelunking into cinema’s past, you’re going to find some shockingly antiquated notions. Because people evolve. Culture evolves. And, as surprising as it seems now, this film must have been tremendously progressive at the time. Hell, a film where a white woman and an Asian man start a relationship would still be seen as shocking today for some stupid reason, let alone a hundred years ago. Calling Cheng the Yellow Man wasn’t really being offensive at the time. They made him the hero, and it felt like they just didn’t know any better. Once again, that doesn’t excuse the racism inherent in that decision, but if you can’t grasp the historical context of some of these films, and put them in the correct timeframe, then you’re going to have a hard time watching classic cinema. So, just remember that, as in the weeks to come we encounter stories that seem problematic by modern standards.
Broken Blossoms was written by Thomas Burke and D.W. Griffith, directed by D. W. Griffith, and released by United Artists, 1919.
Categories: Cinematic Century