Broken Blossoms is considered the third most important of D. W. Griffith’s feature-length movies after The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). A well-made film, it is fundamental to any analysis of his work from a racial perspective because of its flagrant promotion of race-mixing.
Intolerance is usually described as the director’s mea culpa for the “racism” of The Birth of a Nation. However, it really does not come off that way.
Broken Blossoms, on the other hand, is (to all appearances) his belated response to the loud, obnoxious, obdurate critics of the classic American film. On the issue of race, Griffith caved in cravenly and completely.
D. W. Griffith was the master of melodrama—the genre in which he specialized. To fully appreciate this indispensable aspect of his art, and particularly Broken Blossoms, it is useful to view his most pristine (in the genre sense) feature-length melodrama of all, Way Down East (1920), based on an 1898 play by Lottie Blair Parker that was one of the most popular successes of the American stage, touring the country for two decades and thousands of performances.
Like Broken Blossoms, that movie starred Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess. Second only to The Birth of a Nation in box office receipts among Griffith’s films, Way Down East was the fourth highest-grossing silent movie in cinema history. The Birth of a Nation was number one. (I’m excluding 2011’s The Artist [also a melodrama], which now ranks number one in dollar terms, because in too many ways it is non-comparable.)
I strongly suspect that most readers would not relate sympathetically to Way Down East. Nevertheless, it casts a great deal of light on Griffith’s work as a whole, as well as upon melodrama as a stage, film, and literary genre.
The Birth of a Nation and Broken Blossoms are both melodramas in the Way Down East mode, with the twist that they ideologically subvert the form, Birth from the Right, and Blossoms from the culturally dominant, anti-white Left.
Much of Broken Blossoms was shot on two small interior sets—a departure for Griffith, who preferred exterior sets and location shooting. Though made in less than three weeks on a modest budget, the film took several months to edit. “I can’t look at the damn thing,” the director said, “it depresses me so.”
The movie, which was a critical (not surprisingly, given its Politically Correct race and family themes) and financial success, is a tragic tale of love and suffering in the seedy Limehouse district of London. (London’s Chinatown centered on Limehouse in London’s East End.)
Lillian Gish, aged 25, plays an illegitimate 15-year-old girl, Lucy Burrows, who lives with her abusive father, good-for-nothing prizefighter Battling Burrows, played by young, powerfully-built Donald Crisp (later a well-known character actor in the talkies), of whom she is rightly terrified.
The Chinese hero, referred to only as The Yellow Man (Richard Barthelmess), is an otherworldly paragon (save for his addiction to opium, the kind of flaw that did not particularly trouble Griffith), while Battling Burrows is a vicious, depraved emblem of Anglo-Saxon brutality beyond hope of redemption.
The identification of the male protagonist simply as “Yellow Man” accentuates the film’s insistent interracial agitprop.
Caught between Good and Evil is the little, victimized heroine, the epitome of the wronged, powerless female.
This is not quite as bad as it sounds. The Yellow Man does move to London, but quickly fails in his mission. Alone in a strange land, he is compelled to earn a living, and opens a small curio shop.
One day two Christian missionaries pause to speak to him. One says, “My brother leaves for China tomorrow to convert the heathen.”
The look on Barthelemess’ face is priceless—no racism, contempt, or condescension at all as he responds ironically, “I — I wish him luck.”
He knows the man will be no more successful than he was. Mutual inscrutability.
Blossoms is based on Thomas Burke’s short story “The Chink and the Child” from his collection Limehouse Nights (1916). The book depicted interracial relationships between Chinese men and white women.
The gentle shopkeeper-hero, now a failure—a broken blossom—frequents an opium den to anesthetize his sorrow and loneliness: “Chinese, Malays, Lascars [Asian Indians], where the Orient squats at the portals of the West.”
Griffith conspicuously shows young English women in this dissolute environment, pressing themselves upon indifferent Asian opium addicts, impliedly trading sexual favors for dope or money. I noticed no English men in the scenes.
Despite an intertitle condemning the dive as a “scarlet house of sin,” Griffith’s visual imagery conveys a contradictory message of sensuality rather than censure.
One senses in the director a certain hypocrisy in such scenes, an attitude more commonly attributed to Jewish director Cecil B. DeMille because of his similar moralizing displays of onscreen decadence.
Perhaps relevant here, Griffith eventually became an alcoholic, and his final, unsuccessful, film, The Struggle (1931), a talkie, explored the ravages of alcoholism (and, characteristically, attacked Prohibition). Though not highly praised by anyone, the cheaply-made independent film funded with proceeds from an unexpected tax refund is seen by some today as a precursor of The Lost Weekend (1945).
Hapless Lucy Burrows—the other broken blossom of the tale—longs to escape her wretched existence, but cannot, trapped as she is in a poverty-stricken, adolescent hell.
Griffith savages white families in the film in a manner that would bring a smile of approval to the face of any contemporary feminist, academic, or social services apparatchik. Contemporary writers praise the movie’s depiction of “domestic violence with such unvarnished, unforgiving ferocity.”
“Whatever you do, dearie,” a married woman counsels the girl, “don’t get married.” (Men are so terrible.) Unlike white girls today, Lucy is also “Warned as strongly by the ladies of the street against their profession.”
The perpetually terrified child is sometimes beaten to within an inch of her life by her bestial, hard-drinking father.
After a particularly brutal encounter with her father, Lucy, physically and emotionally battered, collapses unconscious in the Yellow Man’s shop after wandering the streets aimlessly.
He carries her to his apartment above the store where he lives, and dresses her in Chinese silks.
That’s “racist,” of course, as is the fact that the Yellow Man is portrayed by a white actor.
This path of “anti-racist” inanity becomes wider and stupider the farther you travel down it. By current standards, the Chink should have been an Asian, or group of Asians, publicly doing White Blossom on a crowded bus cruising the city streets. The sanctimonious crowd would certainly think so. After all, that IS their “anti-racist” system.
But in 1919 Griffith did not have the option of such ideological purity: the Yellow Man’s love “remains a pure and holy thing—even his worst foe says this.” The romance, in other words, is ethereal. Cinema convention forbade interracial physical intimacy. But Griffith approximated it as closely as he could.
As the hero tenderly nurses Lucy back to health, a chaste romance blossoms between the two, awakening powerful feelings of love both thought had forever been denied them. The Asian lovingly thinks of his “alabaster” Lucy as “White Blossom.”
The girl’s father, training for an upcoming bout, learns of his daughter’s presence in the Chinaman’s shop from an acquaintance, assumes the worst, and becomes enraged. He vows to set matters straight after the fight is over that evening.
In a drunken rage, Lucy’s father visits the Chinaman’s shop (the proprieter is out), trashing it before dragging his daughter back to their grimy rooms to punish her. Correctly fearing for her life, Lucy locks herself in a closet to avoid his assault. This is the famous closet scene, where Gish writhes in terror as Crisp batters down the door to get at her.
Returning to his shop, which is now in a shambles and the girl missing, the Yellow Man seizes a revolver and rushes to Lucy’s aid as Burrows is breaking into the cupboard. But he arrives too late. The girl is already dead from the brutal beating the father has administered.
In most un-Buddha-like fashion, the angelic Chinaman murders the bestial father.
The Yellow Man gathers Lucy’s lifeless body in his arms and carries her through the fog-shrouded streets of Chinatown back to his apartment. Devastated by Lucy’s death, and knowing he will be arrested and jailed, and probably executed, he performs a religious ceremony before committing ritual suicide by plunging a knife into his chest.
Broken Blossoms is in many ways a disgusting film. It maligns the white family and blatantly promotes miscegenation.
It is highly significant that Griffith flipped a key element of Thomas Burke’s story on its head in order to shoot the kind of movie he did. In the original, the Chinese protagonist was a sordid Shanghai drifter pressed into naval service, who frequented opium dens and whorehouses. Griffith transformed him into a Yellow saint.
There is no denying that Broken Blossoms is extremely effective anti-white propaganda. But a truly committed racialist would never have made such a movie.
It is hard to see the film as anything but a conscienceless effort to curry favor with the powers-that-be, who continued to assail Griffith mercilessly year after year. The director did not approach his self-appointed task cynically, either, but in a sincere, “I truly DO love Big Brother” manner.
The only other explanation that comes to mind, though still motivated by the same “I want to belong” attitude, is that Griffith harbored a peculiarly “Southern brand” of racism, which rejects blacks but embraces Jews and other non-whites.
The designation “Southern-style” is somewhat misleading, since many Southerners are outside its ambit (William Pierce, Harold Covington, David Duke [if he’s Southern], Frazier Glenn Miller, Edward Fields, KKK leader Sam Bowers, and many others), while many non-Southerners embrace it. Nevertheless, the generalization stands.
An adherent who has articulated Southern-style racism honestly and forthrightly is English-born writer John Derbyshire, who is married to a Chinese woman, has hybrid children, and is a self-described “philosemite,” “anti-anti-semite,” and “Zionist.” Philo-Semitism is central to his worldview, as it is for most “Southern” racists. Derbyshire further elaborated his position as follows:
I bond effortlessly with East Asians & I think always have. I’m more at ease in a room full of Chinese people than I would be in a room full of black American rap artists. And my personal predilections aside [emphasis added], I think the big division in our society is always black-nonblack. The other stuff—Hispanics, Asians—is a bagatelle [unimportant, a trifle] by comparison. (“‘I May Give Up Writing and Work as a Butler’: Interview with John Derbyshire,” Gawker, April 9, 2012)
Clearly, racialist whites fall into at least two broad categories characterized by incompatible psychological structures. (Since anti-white whites are objectively racist as well—they are anti-white—they belong to yet a third category.)
It is possible that D. W. Griffith’s brand of racism was of this type. If so, it would explain his Derbyshire-like anti-black antipathy, embrace of white-Chinese miscegenation, and sympathy for Amerinidians over whites in his Biograph shorts.
It is also possible that the racism of Birth of a Nation owed more to the happenstance of Thomas Dixon’s underlying story and the director’s implicit Southerness (regionalism) than to any commitment on his part to whites as a race.
Griffith once called Pickett’s charge (a Confederate infantry assault at the Battle of Gettysburg resulting in thousands of casualties on both sides) “a beautiful thing.”
This illustrates his dark side when it came to war. (When asked years after the battle why his charge at Gettysburg failed, Confederate General George Pickett replied: “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”)
Griffith’s films abound in battle scenes that glorify war, belying his incessant, mawkish pacifist pronunciations.
Hearts of the World (1918) is a propaganda film made in Europe in partnership with Jewish tycoon Adolph Zukor at the request of Lloyd George and the English and French governments. Its aim was to draw the still-neutral United States into the European slaughter. Lillian Gish said in an interview that the request from European powers to make the film greatly flattered the director.
In Hearts, Griffith—so often the cloying pacifist (one is reminded of Robert Frost’s cynical description of Carl Sandburg as a “pacifist between wars”)—cunningly presented “the dash and drama of war” as he put it, including the depiction of the bestial Hun, played in Hearts and many other films of the era by Jewish actor (later director) Erich von Stroheim.
In one non-Griffith silent movie von Stroheim played a lust-crazed German officer so intent upon raping a young Frenchwoman in her home that he interrupted his crime just long enough to frenziedly throw her screaming, terror-stricken baby out an upper-floor window to its death because its cries were distracting him. (I saw the sequence.)
Keep in mind that this was before Hitler and WWII.
Star Lillian Gish later said, “Hearts of the World enjoyed great success until the Armistice when people lost interest in war films. The film inflamed audiences. Its depiction of German brutality bordered on the absurd. Whenever a German came near me, he beat me or kicked me.”
Gish, whose father was of German Lutheran descent, was an outspoken anti-interventionist and active member of the America First Committee before WWII. The film and theater industries blacklisted her until she agreed to sign a contract promising to cease her anti-interventionist activities and never disclose the existence of the agreement.
This demonstrates once again the obsessive, intolerant Jewish insistence upon squelching any sign of dissent to their policies, no matter how socially destructive they may be. Commitment to free speech, association, or democracy seems to be utterly alien to them.
Another large-scale melodrama based upon a popular, long-running stage play performed hundreds of times since the 1870s, translated into 40 languages, and already filmed twice when Griffith shot his version (three times, if the German remake filmed contemporaneously with Griffith’s is included), was Orphans of the Storm (1921), a story of the French Revolution starring sisters Lillian and Dorothy Gish and Austrian-born Jew Joseph Schildkraut.
The oblique lesson, according to Griffith’s introductory intertitle, is that “the French Revolution rightly overthrew a bad government. But we in America should be careful lest we with a good government mistake fanatics for leaders and exchange our decent law and order for Anarchy and Bolshevism.”
Attitudes toward the French Revolution are a good litmus test of extremism and political judgment. That Griffith supported the French Revolution to a degree suggests underlying Leftism. But the fact that he was not enamored of Jewish Communism, at least in 1922, indicates more soundness of character than most successful, well-to-do people of the era displayed.
Orphans was only a modest success at the box office. The popularity of melodramas had waned. Following the enormous ticket sales of The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920), Orphans marked the end of Griffith’s great epics. None of his later films attained the money-making heights of these earlier efforts.
Prophet Without Honor
Griffith spent his final years in a succession of apartment-hotels. On July 23, 1948 he was discovered unconscious in the lobby of the Knickerbocker Hotel in Los Angeles, where he had been living alone. He was 73 years old. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage (stroke) on the way to the hospital.
In 1953 the Directors Guild of America (DGA) created the D. W. Griffith Award, its highest honor. Recipients include Cecil B. DeMille, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, John Huston, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, and Stanley Kubrick.
But in 1999 the DGA’s National Board removed the pioneer filmmaker’s name from the trophy because The Birth of a Nation “helped foster intolerable racial stereotypes.” They renamed it the “DGA Lifetime Achievement Award.”
To his credit, in sharp contrast to such priggishness, actor-director Orson Welles said:
I met D. W. Griffith only once, in the last days of the last year of the 1930s. Hollywood’s golden age, but for the greatest of all directors it had been a sad and empty decade. The motion picture which he had virtually invented had become the product—the exclusive product—of America‘s fourth-largest industry [emphasis added], and on the assembly lines of the mammoth movie factories there was no place for Griffith. He was an exile in his own town, a prophet without honor, a craftsman without tools, an artist without work. I loved and worshipped him, but he didn’t need a disciple. He needed a job. I have never really hated Hollywood except for its treatment of D. W. Griffith. No town, no industry, no profession, no art form owes so much to a single man. He is beyond tribute. (Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, This Is Orson Welles, rev. ed., Da Capo Press, 1998, pp., 20–21)
D. W. Griffith was a great filmmaker. But his “notorious” “racism” is a red herring.
The lesson of Griffith’s films is that the tiresome anti-white narrative, as is so often the case, bears little resemblance to reality.
Griffith likely refrained from depicting miscegenation outright in Broken Blossoms only because white sexual and racial exclusivity at the time was regarded as proper—the way Jewish apartness, exclusivity, and bigotry is today. It may have been too big a taboo to break.
There are many reasons why we’re in the fix we’re in. One of them is that our predecessors weren’t the uncompromising racists those who hate us say they were.