Most people remember D.W. Griffith, if they remember him at all, as the director of the film that helped give rise to the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan. The, vile racist depiction of blacks in Birth of a Nation is still shocking. Julius Streicher, the publisher of Der Sturmer, was hanged at Nuremberg for inciting German Christians to kill Jews. Griffith deserved no less. A successful communist revolution in the United States in 1917 would have rightfully left D.W. Griffith dangling at the end of a rope.
Yet there was another side to the first great American cinematic artist. While it’s probably a stretch to call D.W. Griffith a “feminist,” it’s impossible to ignore that Griffith hated the oppression of women. Even in the loathsome birth of a Nation, Griffith put the problem of rape at the center of the narrative. These days, the liberal standup comedian Louis C.K. is considered an enlightened male feminist for arguing that the most dangerous thing in the world for a woman is to go on a date with a man. Griffith may not have been particularly liberal or particularly enlightened, but he probably believed the same thing.
Broken Blossoms, made 4 years after Birth of a Nation, isn’t a lost or forgotten movie. It’s on Youtube in its entirety. You should go watch it now. But its racial attitudes are such a dramatic departure from Birth of a Nation its difficult to believe the two films were made by the same director. Try to imagine the ministry of Nazi propaganda putting out a film about a North American Indian trying to rescue a German girl from her brutish, blue-eyed, Aryan father and you’ll get the idea. Astonishingly, the director of Birth of a Nation also made the first important interracial romance in the history of American cinema.
Broken Blossoms is, of course, problematic. The Asian hero is played by a white actor. California’s anti-miscegenation laws would have made casting a Chinese actor impossible anyway. The relationship is chaste and platonic. The doomed quality of their romance has been copied in many subsequent films, and is anything but progressive. But still, Broken Blossoms gives us an Asian hero and a white villain, the “yellow man” taking the place of Birth of a Nation’s chivalrous klansmen, and the English “Battling Burrows” replacing the mulatto Gus as the menace to delicate femininity. Indeed, the idea of an Asian hero trying, and failing, to save a 15 year old white girl from being raped and murdered by her father might even indicate that Griffith believed European civilization had grown “incestuous,” and needed an infusion of “new blood.”
Even in its faded, yellowed film stock, Broken Blossoms is still an aesthetic marvel, the 23-year-old Lilian Gish’s portrayal of “the girl” one of the great performances in silent film. As the movie opens, we are in an unnamed Chinese City, probably Shanghai. The “yellow man,” a Buddhist monk played by Richard Bartlemess is tall, gentle, handsome, the perfect romantic hero. After witnessing a brawl by some British sailors, he decides to go to the west to “introduce the brutish Anglo Saxon to the ways of the Buddha.” A few years later, the “yellow man” is a shopkeeper in Limehouse, a dark, seedy neighborhood on the east end of London. His youthful dreams are gone, the title card informs us.
While Shanghai was portrayed as lively and colorful, Limehouse is a vision of hell, Blake’s dark satanic city. “The Girl” is a Blakean innocent, a little lamb among the tigers, and we know, as soon as we see her, that her life is going to be a short one. Too beautiful for the world she lives in, she spends her days slaving away for her brutish father, a bare knuckled prize fighter named “Battling Burrows.” One day, after undergoing a horrific beating, she runs into the street, eventually finding herself in the yellow man’s shop, where she passes out on the floor. The yellow man immediately sees that this is why he came to the west, that this poor abused girl is the poetic ideal he has been seeking all his life. He nurses her back to health, and, over the course of the film, introduces her to “civilization,” to an ancient culture that values her yearnings for beauty and gentleness.
The ending of Broken Blossoms is brutal and heart wrenching. A friend of Battling Burrows rats “the girl” out to her father. He bursts into the yellow man’s shop, and, while her protector is out, drags her home, and he whips her to death in a jealous, spasm of racist anger. A “chink” had defiled his daughter. The hero, the yellow man, sick with grief, manages to pull himself together long enough to shoot the murderer dead, the hail of bullets he pumps into the savage, brutish, almost subhuman white man the only orgasmic release possible. He then builds a Buddhist shrine to his dead Platonic lover before slitting his own throat.
I would guess the transformation of D.W. Griffith’s racial attitudes have a lot to do with the First World War. Birth of a Nation was filmed in 1915. Broken Blossoms was filmed in 1919, shortly after European civilization had slit its own throat on the bed of The Somme and the Battle of Verdun. A war more horrible than the United States Civil War had turned all of old Europe into the killing fields of Northern Virginia. China, by contrast, was far off, a Buddhist version of the old south, an ancient, hierarchical civilization that remained outside of the brutish industrial civilization that had given the United States Gettysburg and Cold Harbor, and France Ypres and Paschendale. If there could be no poetry after the 20 million dead in the trenches of Western Europe, a few lovely blossoms remained, perhaps, in Shanghai and Beijing, in the Forbidden City and at the White Horse Temple.
The Chinese man in Broken Blossoms has about as much to do with real Asians as the rapist blacks in Birth of a Nation with real black people. Both were projections of Griffith’s sense of his own duality onto the idea of race, the blacks the “dark” side he wanted to restrain, the “yellow man” the civilized restraint he wanted to cultivate. Indeed, while Richard Barthelmess, the white actor who plays “the yellow man,” is a white man with the coarser side of his masculinity refined away, Battling Burrows is the Anglo Saxon at his most brutish, the thinning hairline, the thick brows, the heavy jaw, and the bulging eyes, almost a parody of Caucasian ugliness. Is this the way a Japanese or Chinese aristocrat would have seen an Englishman in the year 1900? In any event, the beefy, red meat eating Burrows is a far cry from the heroic “Little Colonel” of Birth of a Nation. Working class whites, for Griffith, are barely any better than blacks. If women are vulnerable children, men, without the restraints of birth and class, are no better than animals.
Perhaps Griffith, in the end, is more snob than racist, a pioneer creating the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, but also a romantic reactionary looking backward with nostalgia at the world that died in 1865 and then again in 1917. Hollywood would eventually improve on the concept. The feisty Scarlet O’Hara would replace the fragile “girl.” But the concept would remain the same. Women are our better angels. They have to be protected against masculine desire lest we all fall into barbarism and animal sexuality, the edifice of civilization gone with the wind.