No 7 on the 1001 Films list . . . I don’t like my chances of seeing the whole lot, but I’m enjoying the ones I do see.
As we’re in the tale end of the 19-teens (1919, to be precise), it’s mainly DW Griffith that’s getting a look in. I’ve already reviewed his Birth of a Nation and the brilliant Intolerance, but this film, Broken Blossoms, goes to show that he could make films that ran for less than three hours that were just as compelling. Much as I love long films, there’s something to be said for something brief and effective.
The plot on this one is really simple. A Chinese man (Richard Barthelmess) decides to come to the West with the ideal hopes of teaching white men about the truths of Buddhism. When we cut to three years later, he’s living in London, running a knick-knack shop by today and spending his nights in a depressed cloud of smoke at the local opium den. Meanwhile, our other main character is Lucy (Lillian Gish), the abused daughter of a boxer by the name of Battling Burrows.
The story is really about these two lost souls connecting with each other, and the consequences that come about from it.
There are some slightly disturbing elements to this film. For starters, none of the main Asian characters are played by Asians. Also, typical of Griffith’s films, the characters have more symbolic names, rather than real characters. The story is not about real people, but about larger than life emotions. So thus Richard Barthelmess’ character is referred to simply as the Yellow Man (but there is a name above his shop, for those who look closely). There’s also the element that the Lucy character is only 15-years-old, so while he treats her a lot more nicely than her violent father does, isn’t there something seedy about his intentions as well? The film attempts to deflect this by making quite clear that nothing physical happened between them, but the question is still there.
However, if you can put all that aside, you will get sucked right into this film because, as usual, Griffith is the master of emotional manipulation. He knows instinctively which scenes make our blood boil, and which make them melt, and they’re all thrown into this film. Scenes of troubling viciousness (even by today’s standards) are placed alongside scenes of tenderness, and if you give into it, it will move you.
Probably of all his films I’ve seen so far, this one gets to the core emotions the fastest and plays them the loudest, thus setting a trend for Hollywood of what it is that engages an audience’s emotions as they watch a film. Emotional manipulation of the highest order.
4 out of 5.