Wednesday 8 June 2011

1,001 Films: "Broken Blossoms" (1919)

After launching his career - and arguably the entire American narrative cinema - with epics of history (The Birth of a Nation) and civilisation (Intolerance), D.W. Griffith scaled down his ambitions to deliver the 90-minute melodrama Broken Blossoms, charting the relationship between a young waif (Lillian Gish) abused by her prizefighter father, and a Chinese shopkeeper (Richard Barthelmess) who arrived in London to spread peace, discovered opium instead, and may now be the best hope of saving the girl from a life of drudgery.

Though he makes Gish's hateful father somebody "who hates those not born in the same great country as himself", Griffith doesn't exactly seem apologetic about those charges of racism levelled against Birth, inviting Barthelmess to squint his way through the role of a character variously referred to as "Chink", "Chinky" (by the Gish character) and, in the film's own subtitle, as "The Yellow Man". (If the film weren't silent, you'd almost certainly hear Barthelmess saying "Ah so" on a regular basis.)

Gish, tiny and cowering in the bottom corners of the frame like a new-born duckling, also seems too fragile and passive a heroine for a modern eye. The best performance in the film is the towering display of physicality given by Donald Crisp as Gish's father 'Battlin' Barrows, neanderthal of brow, cauliflower of ear; you can read multitudes about the character simply from the way Crisp thrusts his fists into his pockets, and he has a great stumbling death scene. It has dated, but it's still capable of touching the heart and quickening the pulse in places.

Broken Blossoms is available to rent and watch online at

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