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Film / Broken Blossoms

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We may believe there are no Battling Burrows, striking the helpless with brutal whip - but do we not ourselves use the whip of unkind words and deeds? So, perhaps, Battling may even carry a message of warning.

Broken Blossoms or the Yellow Man and the Girl is a 1919 film directed by D. W. Griffith and starring Lillian Gish, a tale of love between a Chinese man and an English girl, and very different from the far better-known The Birth of a Nation. It's also notable as the first film released by United Artists.

Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess), a young Chinese man leaves his native homeland for the shores of England, as a missionary hoping to spread the teachings of Buddha. However, London quickly chews him up and spits him back out again, and he finds himself running a shop and drifting through opium dens. However, a chance meeting with the young Lucy Burrows (Gish), the abused daughter of well known boxer Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp), leads the two of them to fall in love. But when her father finds out, their love quickly turns into tragedy.

This film is in the public domain and can be viewed in its entirety at Youtube (there are also purple-colored, yellow-colored or sepia-colored versions there).


  • Abusive Parents: Battling Burrows, who abuses Lucy both verbally and physically, and eventually kills her.
  • Actual Pacifist: Originally, Cheng is one. He tries to stop two sailors from fighting, quoting The Golden Rule.
  • Age Lift: In the original short story, Lucy was twelve. For the film, her age has been upped to fifteen.
  • Alcoholic Parent: Battling Burrows.
  • Alliterative Name: Battling Burrows.
  • Alliterative Title: Broken Blossoms.
  • Almost Kiss: Twice, Cheng leans in to kiss Lucy, but seeing her draw back refrains.
  • Axe Before Entering: After a desperate Lucy tries to hide from her father by locking herself in the closet, he chops the door down with a hatchet. The scene where a terrified Lucy bounces off the walls of the closet is one of the most memorable of Lillian Gish's career.
  • Blood from the Mouth: Lucy after her last, fatal beating at the hands of Battling Burrows.
  • Break the Cutie: Cheng and Lucy.
  • Broken Bird: Poor, poor Lucy.
  • Broken Smile: Lucy forces herself to smile like this several times, including while dying.
  • The Cavalry: Cheng tries to be this, but arrives too late.
  • The Chain of Harm: Battling Burrows's manager berates him for his drinking and whoring. Since Burrows can't take his anger out on him, he "saves it for a weaker object" - Lucy.
  • Chastity Couple: Cheng's love is "a pure and holy thing" (a line straight from the original text). Enforced in the film, since, even though Cheng is played by a white actor in yellowface, an interracial makeout session would have been too much for most people to take in 1919 America. And Lucy is only 15, after all. He does try to kiss her, but when she pulls back he stops. The original text, where Lucy is twelve, explains that while that's not too young to marry in China, Cheng has had lots of girlfriends but always looked for "his world's one flower," and Lucy was it; he revered her perfection. "All that is known is that his love was a pure and holy thing. Of that we may be sure, for his worst enemies have said it."
  • Downer Ending: Cheng fails to rescue Lucy from Battling Burrows, who beats her to death. Abandoning his pacifist beliefs, Cheng shoots Burrows, then commits suicide.
  • Driven to Suicide: Cheng at the end.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Cheng visits opium dens because he's depressed.
  • Either/Or Title: Broken Blossoms or the Yellow Man and the Girl
  • Enter Stage Window: How Cheng gets into Battling's apartment when he is trying to rescue Lucy.
  • The Film of the Book: Based on the Thomas Burke short story "The Chink and the Child".
  • Finger-Forced Smile: When Lucy is ordered to smile by her father, she pushes up the corners of her mouth with her fingers. Her life is so miserable that she never had a reason to smile for real.
  • Funetik Aksent: The intertitles are written this way when quoting the Cockney characters
  • The Golden Rule: At the beginning of the movie, Cheng quotes this as a precept of the Buddha's to two white men who are fighting. It's just good-natured brawling, but Cheng doesn't have that concept and is now "more than ever convinced that the great nations across the sea need the lessons of the gentle Buddha."
    Do not give blows for blows. The Buddha says: 'What thou dost not want others to do to thee, do thou not to others.'
  • Go Out with a Smile: After being beaten up by her father, Lucy tries to force herself to smile one last time. Upon death, however, her smile relaxes and she dies with her eyes open.
  • May–December Romance: More like May-September, as Cheng is still a young man.
  • Mighty Whitey and Mellow Yellow: Gender-inverted, even though Cheng is played by a white actor.
  • Missing Mom: Lucy's mother, who simply handed her over to Battling Burrows as an infant, and never came back.
  • The Missionary: Cheng tries to be a Buddhist missionary in England, but he fails. Nobody listens to him, and he becomes just another Chinese shopkeeper.
  • Murder-Suicide: Cheng kills Lucy’s father Battling Burrows, and then himself, having failed to prevent Burrows from beating his own daughter to death.
  • Offing the Offspring: Burrows beats Lucy to death.
  • Opium Den: Cheng starts spending time in these after things go bad in London.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Cheng, though he's harmless.
  • A Taste of the Lash: Battling Burrows regularly beats Lucy with a whip.
  • Tears of Fear: Played for terrifying drama as Lucy sobs with fear as her monstrous father breaks down the door to the closet she's hiding in. He proceeds to beat her to death.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Cheng starts out as one, but he's quickly broken down by the world.
  • Yellowface: The Chinese characters are played by white actors.
  • Yellow Peril: Subverted, in that Cheng is a decent and honorable person, and the villain of the film is the white Battling Burrows.