Broken Blossoms

Broken Blossoms ★★★★½

A Century of Cinema Challenge: 1919

I've only just begun to delve into the world of silent film, but amidst my limited exposure, Broken Blossoms is the most beautiful silent film I've ever seen. Unlike his racist epic The Birth of a Nation, DW Griffith took a more minimalist approach with Broken Blossoms, an intimate story of racial tolerance and perhaps one of the most tender love stories I've ever seen in a film. The story follows a Chinese Buddhist, simply called the Yellow Man, who journeys to London hoping to spread the Buddha's message of peace and love to the West. He quickly becomes disillusioned after living in the harsh, unforgiving reality of early 20th century London and becomes an opium addict. Enter Lucy, played by the marvelous Lillian Gish, a poor street waif who is abused by her father and stumbles to the Yellow Man's door after being beaten nearly to death. The Yellow Man sees her purity and beauty beneath the bruises and the dirt and nurses her back to health out of love.

Griffith's excellent eye and unprecedented camera work are used to full effect, working masterfully with the with the set. But what really captures the viewers attention is the chemistry between Gish and Richard Barthelmess. Barthelmess's Yellow Man (though a tad racist by today's standards) is gentle and kind and perfectly earnest, complimenting Gish's haunted, wounded innocence. The moments between them are so tender and sweet that I couldn't keep myself from smiling. Conversely, Donald Crisp is wonderfully over the top as Lucy's abusive father, Battling Burrows. Though his character is despicable, his expressive face and sheer physicality provide a few moments of comic relief.

Broken Blossoms is tragic and sentimental, but the sentimentality doesn't feel like it's laid on too thick and you're left with a sensitive love story, somewhat ahead of its time, that is near perfect in its simplistic beauty. My only previous exposure to Griffith was The Birth of a Nation, which (for good reason) left a bad taste in my mouth and a knot in my gut, but with Broken Blossoms, Griffith has more than redeemed himself in my eyes.

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