Griffith returns once again to this list and the silver screen with a story following the trend of liberalism and open-mindedness which he began with Intolerance. In this story, we follow two characters spiritually lost in the smog choked streets of London’s Limehouse district. The first is the Girl (Lillian Gish), brutally beaten at whim by her boxing champion father, Battling Burrow (Donald Crisp), and the other is jaded Buddhist Chen Haun (Richard Barthelmess). Through tenderness and compassionate empathy for a kindred outsider, the two find love – although it is an idealised and isolated version.
The most noticeable aspect of Broken Blossoms is the remarkable change of pace Griffith adopts. From his first two epics, Broken Blossoms instead embraces an intimate narrative, revelling in character progression on a small scale. Perhaps the subject matter of an interracial love story is enough of an epic step in filmmaking (as miscegenation was still a reality in 1919) rather than lavish sets and elaborate camera technique. Griffith, instead, enjoys teasing audiences with an exotic love, capturing Chen in the first use of extreme close-ups before re-instating his purity. Interestingly, Griffith altered the original story upon which the film is based and raised Chen’s character onto a morally superior level, removing fear of a lecherous or predatory representation. Sadly, Chen is plead by a Caucasian actor as this was still common practice at the time, however it is also a remarkable leap forward as Chen is arguably both the sweet carer and avenging hero.
The love shared is simple and innocent, representing the fragility of both Chen and, as he refers to her, ‘White Blossom’. Lillian Gish steals the show in this piece, demonstrating in abundance her ability to excite empathy from audiences across a spectrum of emotion. Gish creates endearment as she forces a broken smile onto her face with her fingers, or engages panic from the utter terror in her staring eyes as she cowers from her father in the climax. Gish is a true silver screen star original.
Broken Blossoms suffers from expected problems of a film dated from 1919. It is melodramatic, though Griffith was hailed as the grandest director of serious American cinema, and it stereotyped. Chen is a shop keeper, opium smoker and Buddhist, however this seems a means to demonstrate his downfall and he is a romantic hero in comparison to the brutes of London and other Chinese character – Evil Eye.
Broken Blossoms is a tender tragic love story and an atmospheric depiction of foggy docks and smoke filled opium dens of the Limehosue district. Griffith presents a maturity of subject matter and filmmaking process, sacrificing grandeur for compassion.
Battling Burrows, in a drunken rage, drags White Blossom back to his dilapidated home. White Blossom fears for her life, and as Burrows is unwilling to listen to reason, she locks her self in a closet to escape. In a moment of pure Griffith storytelling, the climax intercuts Burrows viciously smashing the door as Gish delivers her bloodcurdling screams, whilst Chen runs desperately to his adorations rescue. Though a very different and reserved piece of filmmaking, Griffith’s sense of pace and urgency is demonstrated in a climatic finale.