David Wark Griffith was a sensitive and daedal man whose oeuvre has been cast in the harsh and pitiless light of racism for decades because of his breakthrough masterpiece The Birth of a Nation (1915). His was a groundbreaking role in the art form of cinema, and his body of work invites many exhaustive examinations that clearly break apart from simply, pejoratively dismissing the man's art as backwards and unsightly, a kind of uninviting moralistic didacticism. That is a limited reading of the man's legacy, however, not just as the founding architect of modern cinema, the great, classic purveyor of close-ups, a legitimately indispensable filmmaker with a legacy as rich and intimidating in its import as any before or since, but as a man whose pictures were an illumination of his mind and soul, however flawed it may have been. The everlasting impact of Griffith's cinema is almost impossible to overrate, much less to over-analyze.
With Lillian Gish, his muse, his obsession, he sketched the beauteous portrait of innocence and chastity with its myriad shadings. In The Birth of a Nation, the virginally white—in multiple ways—Southern women represented sheer purity, and with purity in Griffith's cinema comes fragility and vulnerability. What most of his films boast is a startlingly antediluvian perspective, boiled down to its essence by the superlative craftsmanship the director possessed, the ne plus ultra of silent cinema, is the melodramatic but compositionally—and thus, cinematically, numinously—appropriate shooting techniques that marvelously marinated the archetypal stories he told with stunning dexterity. What this film may most evidently be characterized as is a wondrous film made by a director at the height of his powers but unwilling to ostentatiously impose himself on the audience. The crosscutting that today still keeps film theorists and lovers of cinema rapt in attention simply on the basis of the craft in films such as The Birth of a Nation is minimized in its importance, arguably used more organically as an instrument to connote suspense, especially late in the film. The use of close-ups is made artistically vital in a way unseen before in Griffith's work, however well-realized his mise-en-scene was in so many pictures. As a trailblazer, then, it can be said that this film can be readily interpreted as the director's zenith, a compelling description of virtuoso reining in his own abilities to fluidly create his masterpiece.
Interestingly, Griffith was so hurt by claims of racism stemming from The Birth of a Nation that he felt especially driven when he made the sprawling and epic but highly messy Intolerance, representing a kind of spectacular folly. In contrast to any film before it, or after it, Broken Blossoms represents the pith of Griffith's cinema, a picture that, in its spellbinding manner, is a film so boundlessly inspissating feature, markedly singular in his filmography as a distillation of the master's thematic inquiries. What Griffith did, like so many other artists, was go back to essentials after wandering into the excessive complications of Intolerance, making what was visually and narratively a fundamentally pared-down motion picture. The present humility Broken Blossoms, however, though palpably rendered, is ironically brought about with an $88,000 budget, which at the time was no small sum. However, budgetary considerations notwithstanding, Griffith's recreation of London's benighted Limehouse District, with its cobblestone streets, smoky, foggy riverside alleyways and suffocating interiors, is splendid and convincing.
Gish plays Lucy Burrows, and at 23 at the time this film was shot, many have insisted that she was at least a little too old to play the part of the daughter of a prizefighter named Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp). However, her size and age allow for greater acquaintance with her cowed manner in the menacing shadow of her father, whose possessiveness and at least modestly suggested incestuous behavior continually beat her down to the point of despairing exhaustion. The famed scene in which she forces herself to smile with her fingers manipulating her cheeks is a breathtaking and heartbreaking moment of almost shocking clarity. This, along with many other keynote moments, demonstrably illustrate the power, and, appropriately enough, purity of silent cinema.
Crisp quite ably portrays insecure but brash rage and volatility with considerable intensity. Referred to by the title cards as a lumbering, drunken and cruel “gorilla,” he dwarfs Gish, berating her and caustically or at least physically conveying loathing for the waif daughter. What makes Battling Burrows an interesting creation rather than merely a one-dimensional tough is Griffith's persistent emphasis on the character's inherent pitifulness. While he can be reduced to the figure of a goon, and his violence is deplorable, what makes the character true in this drama is his obvious backwardness.
Richard Barthelmess plays the Chinese Cheng Haun, referred to as “The Yellow Man” in the titles, a man who wants to educate and spiritually enrich the lives of the native Anglo-Saxon population of London. Meeting resistance and resorting to opium, called a “Chink” by Burrows and others, he is an outcast, the proverbial “outsider” in this society. He is unusually sensitive and caring, everything Battling Burrows is not, and he cannot help but notice the thin, comely waif as he looks out the window of his shop. Perhaps standing in for Griffith's desire to educate with the expansive Intolerance, and settling for the intimacy of Broken Blossoms, Haun's once-driving anagogic need to spread the word of Buddha beyond the borders of China, traveling to the Western world, Haun now has an opportunity to put his Buddhist beliefs into practice while being undeniably drawn to the abused Lucy.
Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl, was based on Thomas Burke's story, written by Griffith as an explosive, almost feverish exploration of racial hostility, yes, but most substratively, it is about the potential, awful despoiling of pure, virginal femininity. Unlike The Birth of a Nation, however, Griffith's more naturalistic, yet ardently melodramatic, Broken Blossoms possesses the heretofore radical duality of presenting the “outsider” as the force of enlightenment, sympathy and benevolence and the direct surviving member of the “family” as a belligerent, violent and brutish thug. Before opting to utilize his patented close-ups, Griffith uses wide shots that gloriously detail the almost imprisoned existences of his characters, hidden behind metaphorical bars.
And it is in these reversals and dualisms that Broken Blossoms most emphatically breaks away from the earlier works of Griffith's. For a decade, from 1909 on, Griffith was most definitively interested and motivated by the conceptual paradigm of the family, most prolifically so in his Biograph years, when he churned out sometimes thorny but frequently benign portraits of this crucial thematic interest. Those Awful Hats, A Corner of Wheat, The Jilt, A New Trick, His Wife's Visitor, The Little Darling, Wanted, A Child, The Sealed Room, The Slave, His Trust and The Unchanging Sea, among many others, were all films that found as their catalyst, their focal point, their heart, some kind of visage of the family. With Broken Blossoms, Griffith almost brazenly employs both auto-critique and, in a certain way, reaches a kind of evolutionary plateau. Broken Blossoms forcefully essays the melancholic self-immolation of the family unit as a kind of poisoned well, devastated by the ruinous tending of same by the loutish grotesque.
The Birth of a Nation is still misunderstood, in that it is in many ways merely an extension of Griffith's fascination with the family, with the ideal of womanhood portrayed with sweeping lyricism and straightforward simplicity. Griffith's unsure sociopolitical and historical analysis in that film, inspired by The Clansman, is finally tied to his belief of people to whom wrong has been done, a point that brings with it the provisory that informs Intolerance and more indelibly, Broken Blossoms. While the threat of the mob of backwards ex-slaves carry with it the ungainliness of those considered to be the destroyers of civilization, Griffith's point is more nuanced, despite the provocative and regrettably and today embarrassingly simplistic and incendiary imagery, and finally much more intimate—the quality of which aided him in crafting a film built upon intimacy, even with its elaborate construction of sets necessitating a posh budget.
And that is finally the evanescent purity and beauty of Broken Blossoms, its raison d'etre made into magnificent silent film storytelling, filmmaking at its peak. As the story brings The Yellow Man and The Girl, Lucy together, Griffith sharply narrows the focus of the film's palette, bringing the two faces, Barthelmess's and Gish's, together, with devastating strength and piercing the almost cenobitically rendered emotionalism, brought to glowing warmth and epigrammatic and ephemeral wonderment. Finally the close-ups are used, and, viewing Broken Blossoms, it is no surprise many have credited Gish and not Griffith with creating them. They almost appear created for her. The film in which she stars, made by Griffith, is fortunately created for us, almost ninety years later, and ninety years from now, and one hopes forever, as a kind of shrine to the art of beauty, and, perhaps, the beauty of art.