Thursday 5 September 2013

Broken Blossoms (1919)

'The Yellow Man', as the intertitles would have it.
...or to give it its full title, 'Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl'.  Naturally I was a bit wary, and when the director's slide came up bearing the name 'D.W. Griffith' I was inclined to turn the film off, so gruelling did I find 'Birth of a Nation' (1915), that plodding racist pageant.  This being the age of extreme xenophobia in the US against the so-called 'yellow peril' the film had the potential to be ugly indeed.  I was intrigued, though, by the first few minutes, which promised a tragedy, but gave us, not a Chinese villain, but a Chinese hero, a tender Buddhist missionary who travels to the wild land of London with a message of peace and hope.  This is not what I expected from this writer/director.

It seems that Griffith, having created a massive monstrosity of racist cinema in 1915, then made a career out of partial apologies.  He never conceded that 'Birth of a Nation' was a racist diatribe, but followed it, and its uproarious reception, with a succession of films about tolerance and, like this one, about non-white heroes oppressed by Western whites.  For balance, you see.  There are problems, of course.  Huan Chang, the film's hero, is played by the white Richard Barthelmess, who plays the role in an angular style almost identical to Roddy McDowall's Dr Cornelius from 'Planet of the Apes' (1968).    He wears so much make-up as to seem between ethnicities and between genders, and almost every intertitle refers to him not by name, but as 'the yellow man'.  Even in monochrome, this is surely a step too far.  Now, I could spend a lot of time here exclaiming 'outrageous thing is outrageous' and surprising nobody, but perhaps this isn't just a particularly patronising and racist attempt to tell an anti-racism story.  Perhaps this is all deliberate, and D.W. Griffith has learnt irony and self-awareness.  I do hope so.

...but soon: 'The Yellow Man's dreams come to wreck against the sordid realities of life'.
Weird racist anti-bigotry aside (not that we should really ignore these things), this turned out to be a surprisingly well-made film.  As it transpires, D.W. Griffith is extremely good at telling a story with pictures - something not immediately apparent from the hugely long 'Birth of a Nation'.  He excels with this more intimate noir, this tale of crime and domestic abuse in foggy Limehouse.  The characters are few, and (aside from 'the yellow man') interesting and well-drawn, the shots and staging are far above anything else I've found in this difficult decade, mixing the usual long-shots with convincing two-shots and some of the closest and most aggressive close-ups I've seen from the silent era, or any era.

The story itself is simple and horrible, with Battling Burrows the boxer beating the child Lucy with a belt whenever his temper's up, and her brief escape under the care of the sensitive young Huan Chang only acting to enrage Battling past breaking-point.  When Battling Burrows orders the waif-like child to smile, she doesn't know how to; she has to push the sides of her mouth up with her fingers, and in this way smiles for him with eyes full of terror.  I realise this is a highly sentimental melodrama, but an astounding performance from Lilian Gish propels this from didactic slush to something truly horrific and frightening.

Lilian Gish as the terrified Lucy
I say again, Lilian Gish gives a great performance, which renders the film more upsetting than it ought to be.  There's plenty to remember about the film, and it's the clearest, and most agreeable in duration, that I've yet seen from the 1910s.  It also treats us to two rather extraordinary death scenes.  We see them both coming, of course, but the performances are certainly remarkable, and I shall endeavour to attempt one or both of them on the day I die.

The film's so old you could doubtless find it on Youtube (the best quality copy seemingly being the one with its title in Russian), but here's a disc anyway:

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