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Cheng Huan is a missionary whose goal is to bring the teachings of peace by Buddha to the civilized Anglo-Saxons. Upon landing in England, he is quickly disillusioned by the intolerance and apathy of the country. He becomes a storekeeper of a small shop. Out his window, he sees the young Lucy Burrows. She is regularly beaten by her prizefighter father, underfed and wears ragged clothes. Even in this deplorable condition, Cheng can see that she is a priceless beauty and he falls in love with her from afar. On the day that she passes out in front of his store, he takes her in and cares for her. With nothing but love in his heart, he dresses her in silks and provides food for her. Still weak, she stays in his shop that night and all that Cheng does is watch over her. The peace and happiness that he sees last only until Battling Burrows finds out that his daughter is with a foreigner. Written by
Tony Fontana <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Cheng Huan is so saintly because DW Griffith knew there was a lot of Sinophobia in the US, audiences would have trouble accepting a Chinese hero. In the original short story, Cheng Huan is just a guy who joined the Chinese merchant marines when he got into debt, and then grew tired of shipboard life, and ended up in Limehouse, a multi-cultural port district in the poor section of London. He was never a Buddhist missionary, and fell just short of being a statutory rapist (albeit, he really loved Lucy); another part of rehabilitating his character was to change Lucy's age from 12 to 16. The audience is not supposed to think they had a sexual relationship, but if people played that out in their heads, it wasn't illegal (unless it was under US miscegenation laws, but Griffith kept the London setting). Anyway, it wasn't child-rape. In the original story, Cheng Huan is not a Buddhist missionary, nor a pacifist, and the only way in which he is morally superior to anyone else in the story is his ahead-of-its-time compassion for Lucy. DW Griffith's personal copy of Limehouse Nights, the book with the short story "The Chink and the Child," on which Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) is based, with all his screen writing marginal notes, still exists, in a rare book collection at the Lilly Library on the campus of Indiana University, along with a manuscript copy of the story by the author, with comments by Griffith and Lillian Gish. See more »
The intertitles state, "The Buddha says, 'What thou dost not want others to do thee, do thou not to others.'" It was actually not the Buddha but Confucius' teaching. See more »
[wearily to Lucy]
Whatever you do, dearie, don't get married.
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With some excellent acting performances and an interesting, memorable story, "Broken Blossoms" is one of the better pictures of the late 1910s, and it has held up rather well despite a couple of obvious signs of age. It would be hard to top Lillian Gish's performance as Lucy in any era, and Richard Barthelmess turns in a purposefully restrained and surprisingly effective performance in a role that was far from easy.
The story ties together several weighty themes, and most of them are still pertinent. This is the kind of movie that is sometimes considered to be dated, yet in terms of the main conflicts and struggles that the characters face, there are probably fewer differences between 1919 and 2004 than many might wish there to be. With material like this, it is also easy to allow it to become labored or heavy-handed. As it is, the tone is somber and austere throughout, yet most of the time this is in a thoughtful way.
Since Griffith's work is still so well-known and meets with such widely varying responses, it can sometimes be hard to evaluate his movies individually, without reference to the rest of his filmography. The story here is unusual enough in itself, with the different races and religions of the characters and the implied images represented by each of them. Each character is rather quickly defined as good or bad - a common state of affairs in Griffith movies - and as a result the story is told in a way that reflects that presumption, for better or for worse.
What is hard to deny is that the story and characters will stick with you afterwards. The impression that it leaves is not an entirely happy one, but the movie successfully evokes the humanity of all involved, which is a not unworthy goal and a not insignificant achievement.
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