Broken Blossoms (1919)

D: D.W. Griffith.
S: Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Donald Crisp.

At the climax of Broken Blossoms, a hysterical woman screams and claws at the walls of a locked closet while her enraged father smashes at the door with a hammer. Sixty years later, director Stanley Kubrick would reprise the scene in his adaptation of Steven King's The Shining. Similarly, the same father is a boxer whose only forms of self expression are acts of violence generally contained by the ring but which frequently explode in his home life. Martin Scorsese would later characterise Jake La Motta in the same way in Raging Bull (1980).

It has become difficult to separate the works of D.W. Griffith from the veil of movie myth which surrounds them. Apart from any consideration of the man himself, his films have been so enshrouded by history that their integrity as works of art has been nearly forgotten. Though it is impossible to view The Birth of a Nation (1915) without considering issues of racism, focus solely upon them obscures its value as a film which allowed the emergent medium to contribute to such debates in the first place. Similarly, though Broken Blossoms is a clichéd melodrama with transparent and often condescending attitudes to race, class and gender, focus solely on contemporary attitudes to these questions blurs the study of the work as a visual articulation of themes and ideas about the world of that time.

Though clearly inspired by its Victorian predecessors (and based upon a literary source), the story is taken beyond limits of stage and print by a director who realised the potential of the cinema to extend and expand existing artistic and dramatic conventions. It serves as the backdrop to a series of intersecting world views centred on its three disparate characters and defined by expressive set design and unusual tinting which provide a sense of subjectivity.

The girl (Lillian Gish) is a beaten waif whose world is dark and ugly but borne with what cheer she can muster. Her father (Donald Crisp) is a burlesque parody of contemporary masculinity, vicious, domineering and completely out of control. The Chinaman (Richard Barthelmess) is a despairing immigrant whose dreams of bringing Buddhist peace to the denizens of London have come crashing down around him and who has escaped into apathy and narcotics.

The inter-racial love story which brings momentary light to this bleak place is nonetheless one framed by an air of self-conscious fantasy, evinced in the scene where Barthelmess dresses Gish like a doll and places her upon an ersatz altar for worship from afar. The world of the film is visual, and it functions primarily on a non-verbal level, often undercutting or further exploring the story on the surface.

That the film is ultimately an appeal for tolerance and understanding between people has been seen by some as Griffith's apology for The Birth of a Nation. But it may be seen as part of his own sincerely held conviction that art (and indeed, he) could change the world, as articulated in his opposition to the First World War in Intolerance (1916).

But it is also remarkable for the ease with which it has been crafted, demonstrating Griffith's growing mastery of the medium. He defines the role of director as the stable centre of film making which allows an artist to shape the work through logistical co-ordination and clarity of self-expression, with due credit to the cast and crew.

The film also showcases a remarkable performance from then twenty-three year old Gish and stunning camerawork by cinematographer Billy Bitzer (assisted by Hendrik Sartov and Karl Brown). Both demonstrate a degree of stylisation which again indicates that every element of the cinematic work is directed towards the use of images to tell the story. Its defiant non-naturalism has often been hailed as the beginning of the European 'art house' tradition, though again this brings the viewer back to questions of spectatorship and hagiography.

Suffice to say that taken within its own frames of reference, Broken Blossoms is as integral and effective a work of art as any produced since, and demands consideration by any serious student of film.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.