|'The Yellow Man', as the intertitles would have it.
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'.
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
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: