Broken Blossoms, directed by one of cinema’s technical pioneers D.W. Griffith, illustrates why the creation of art shouldn’t concern one race apologizing to another for the mistakes of history—namely because the result can’t help but be politically correct pablum. Sure, maybe Griffith had gone too far in Birth of a Nation, depicting the KKK as white-steed-riding warriors who saved the nation from the “evils” of miscegenation. But hey, it’s a viewpoint — albeit a distorted one — and, at the risk of stating the obvious, he has a right to express it under our Constitution without being coerced by resentnicks into issuing an apology in filmic form. (Not that it matters, since, racism or no racism—and technical prowess aside—Birth of a Nation was an artless bore.)
The main problem with Blossoms is how contrived it all is, beginning with the unlikely pairing of the leads. We’re supposed to believe that an opium-puffing Chinese shop owner, Cheng Yuan (Richard Barthelmess), and a young English girl, Lucy (played by the cherubic Lilian Gish, a practical fixture of Griffith’s films) have finally found each other in a divey London neighborhood despite the cruelness of circumstance. Yellow Man (Griffith’s ill-considered epithet, not mine) is a victim of Western prejudice, while Lucy’s cross to bear is her abusive brute of a father, Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp, whose sidemouth sneer induces laughter rather than repulsion), a boxer and boozer who, you guessed it, is also a bigot who particularly hates Asian people. Of this fact, we are informed by the clumsily written intertitles, which say almost nothing that we couldn’t figure out from the events themselves.
On the subject of prejudice, let’s not forget the reason “chinky” (Lucy actually calls him that, go figure) is in England: to spread his nonviolent Buddhist message to the West. In trying to do so, he’s—to choose but one example—beaten up by a group of cockney sailor toughs. Puh-leeze. Could this have been more crudely conceived? Griffith’s approach here reminds me of those modern university students who, either ignorant of history or wanting to feel warm and virtuous inside, claim that Native Americans were nothing but peace-loving innocents raped and pillaged by gangs of conquistadores, when, in fact, tribes like the Incas were fierce warriors themselves who often practiced human sacrifice.
The main question I would have liked to ask Griffith is why he felt the need to make Blossoms when he had already made his masterpiece Intolerance, a study of human hypocrisy (read: prejudice) throughout the ages that ingeniously interweaves scenes from four historical eras. In doing so, he not only responded to his foaming-at-the-mouth detractors but had already elevated film cutting techniques and storytelling to new heights. Blossoms, on the other hand, displays little of that lenticular virtuosity and never rises above the caricatured. Griffith no doubt intended his close-ups of Lucy’s anguished face as she flees to the closet to escape her whip-wielding father to seem pitiable rather than mawkish. Alas, Griffith is no Dreyer, and Gish is certainly no Falconetti.
Yet so many critics seem to eat films like this up. I guess pointing their pompous forefingers at a union of two people despite their racial differences makes them feel more “human,” whatever that word really means. I guess, too, that Blossoms could be deemed prophetic in foretelling how many contemporary movie viewers would be impressed by trite metaphors and cardboard stereotypes. (Why else would trash like Do the Right Thing and Juno see the light of day?) Indeed, you may not even need to watch much of the film to surmise that the broken blossoms represent separation and death—I sure didn’t. To me, Blossoms seemed an interminable melange of truisms, a tendentious idea that was destined to wilt before it even hit the big screen.
Joe’s Grade: C+