As the film opens in China, this image evokes the happy family and a well ordered and prosperous patriarchy.
The Chinese man tries to pacify the rowdy British sailors but they knock him to the ground.
Body in soft curves, shrinking, static, alone.
Burrows eats the meal Lucy prepares. She has to wait till he goes out to eat the leftover scraps.
One of Burrows companions spies on Lucy in the Chinese man's apartment and then ...
... tells Burrows about what he had seen, first as a racy tale and then revealing it was about Burrows' own daughter.
Burrows beats Lucy with the phallus-like whip.
The Chinese man faces off to Burrows, as the two men ...
... tacitly acknowledge their fight to the death over Lucy.
The opening titles and the choice of content in the film's early shots would seem to indicate that the initial contrast between a port in the Far East and a Limehouse slum is intended to emphasize a social and moral point, namely that Asian civilization and altruism outshine European and American immorality and grossness. Yet another set of reflections are simultaneously elicited from the audience—an evaluation and comparison of effeminacy vs. brute manliness. In his scripted role and in the connotations borne by his figure, Barthelmess as the Chinese man seems to elicit from the audience a common social accusation: that of effeminacy. That is, time and time again, the viewer seems led to conclude, "That's an effeminate man—or effeminate gesture, or article of clothing, etc." The young Asian man's robe is excessively ornate; in the exterior shots, its skirts conspicuously blow in the wind. It is shapeless. making the shape beneath it androgynous in form. When he is in the Buddhist temple with his mentor, the temple itself filled with flowers, exotica, and ornate design, Barthelmess acts "girl-like"—holding a fan, moving only with slight restrained gestures, and standing with eyes cast down.
In contrast to the Chinese man's demeanor, we are also presented in these sequences with men self-consciously proud of their masculinity, the U.S. sailors whom Griffith calls in one intertitle, "barbarous Anglo-Saxon sons of turmoil and strife." They swizzle down liquor, stuff food grotesquely into their mouths, make large gestures, swagger around as ugly Americans totally insensitive to their milieu, and seem incapable of being together without violent physical discord. They foreshadow Griffith's critique of Battling Burrows.
In the Limehouse environment, we first see the Chinese man huddled against a wall, one foot up against it, arms wrapped around himself, eyes cast sadly down. The soft curve of Barthelmess' body seems to "catch" the contrasting, harsh linear angles of the architecture against which he is posed, and for a man to have his arms wrapped around himself is to assume a typical "woman's" gesture of depression, insecurity, and even sad self-hatred. As he is introduced to us in his Limehouse environment, the Chinese man takes a stance which is as far from that of a masculine doer, a self-determining agent of one's own life, as it is possible to present. In his store we see him semi-statically posed smoking his opium against a background of meager beauty, that life he could create for himself being one of melancholy, contemplation and escape.
The opium den which the Chinese man goes to suggests not only moral but sexual derangement. As a matter of fact, fictional films usually "signal" moral derangement by showing us women in sexually transgressive roles. Here, we see mannishly dressed women in sexually active poses or in compositions of sexual self-sufficiency or dominance, often with a man of another race. In one composition, an Anglo woman is sitting higher than and looking down on a totally self-absorbed, opium-smoking Turk; another shot shows a blonde woman interacting with a Black worker, another, an Anglo woman flirting with a Chinese man we later know as Evil Eye.
We see a woman lying on a couch, filmed either as if she wishes to seduce someone or as if the opium were giving her an orgasmic experience on her own. She is panting slightly, wetting her lips, and looking toward the camera with an expression that suggests illicit ecstasy. This shot parallels a later one of Barthelmess stretched out full length on a couch, with the opium seller tending this completely passive figure. The equation of the protagonist's vice with sexual derangement and here, with a suspiciously feminine passivity, could not be more explicit.
In contrast, the figure of Battling Burrows is a study in established norms of masculine dress, gesture, attitudes, and behavior. Every aspect of Burrows' character is heightened so as to make us reflect on the falsity or brutal consequences of those norms. What do we see Burrows doing? In the ring he fights strictly by heavy slugging. After winning, he is proud and struts about. Before the fight he makes faces at his off-screen opponent, juts his chin out, and pounds his gloves up and down on his legs— indicating that he thinks a fight will clearly prove to the whole world who is the "better man."
Back home, he drinks and entertains the advances of a Loose Woman. The signs of her looseness are her activity, her smiling, her friendliness, and her initiative to visit a man in his house. She walks in, hands in her pockets, looks Burrows in the eye, immediately moves over to where he is standing, receives a quick embrace from him, and then goes back out, still looking at him with a flirting look in her eye, presumably having made a date to meet him later.
Burrows' typical posture asserts macho self-confidence in a socially coded way, particularly in terms of cinematic gestures assigned to figures supposedly from the working class. He stands with feet spread apart, lets his eyes sweep around the room possessively, pulls his vest down, puts his hands in his pockets to pull his pants tight across his crotch, and sways back and forth from one foot to another. Such a stance is a way of declaring himself master of a given space, and especially master over the woman in his domestic space.
When angry, Burrows knocks one fist against the palm of the other hand, and when proclaiming his opinion, he gestures with his hand open and palm down. Although he is characterized as stupid, he is also shown as having the prerogative of having his emotions and opinions respected as law in his house—a witty cinematic comment on just where it is that all of us can observe patriarchy as insane, i.e., within the nuclear family.[open endnotes in new window] To portray this man's physical excess, which culminates in his beating his daughter, Griffith has Burrows pick up the chair and swing it around, eat like a pig, throw a spoon at Lucy's rear end, and then oblige her to smile—upon which pathetic act he passes judgment. There are many such gestures of dominance toward Lucy before Burrows beats her. Indeed, all of Burrows' gestures in the film seem to form part of a brutal whole.
Burrows' male friends reinforce for him the rightness of his behavior and attitudes. They form a Boys' Club, something all socially successful men partake of and use to protect their men's rights in a man's world. When the men go to the police station to report Burrows' death, the police's cooperative interaction with them reveals an unusual degree of male cohesiveness, for in another context we might expect more of a conflict to be presented between the police and the fight-loving element of a portside slum. The conflicts which Burrows' associates do have function well within the parameters of the boys' club, for the manager only wants the fighter to fight better; and the associates band together to get the woman back for their friend once the joke of telling him about it has been sprung.
In fact, the tale was told to Burrows just as if it were a spicy story of local adultery; the man who had spied on Lucy paced his account to Burrows to arouse Burrows' sexual curiosity, laughter, and contempt for any cuckolded man who would lose a woman to a weakling and a "Chink." In a competitive fashion, his friends found it great fun to see the boxer's chagrin at "losing" both to a girl, his own daughter whom he was supposed firmly to possess, and to a man who seemed Burrows' inferior because that man would not fight and because he was of another race. There is no love between Burrows and his associates but a lot of mutual self-protection, and when they "recover" Lucy, they all assume that Burrows would and should beat her both to assuage his wounded masculine pride and to put her firmly in her place.
Possessing a virgin and a child
Certain perversities in the film are labeled as such by the intertitles and the story line: namely, racism, opium addiction, and physical violence. Yet there are other perversities equally important to the development of the whole film: these are rape, incest, and the seduction of a child. It is testimony to the force of the intertitles and the declared narrative line—the overt story of racism and child abuse—that few critics have looked closely at the specifically sexual perversity of this film. In fact, if we look at the mise-en-scene and composition, in visual terms it is clear that both the brutish father and the gentle, dope-smoking Chinese man "get" the girl. Visually we see both men symbolically consummating sexual contact with Gish. The film allows both men to possess a virgin, indeed, a child.
It seems clear beyond the need for any more elaboration here that Burrows' breaking into the closet with an ax and dragging the cowering Lucy out between the broken boards visually symbolizes rape; indeed, this is one of the most emotionally powerful sequences of sexual assault on film. Yet there are many other indications in the film that Burrows' relation to his daughter is a sexual one. He abuses her for the same reasons and in the same way that a working-class man is supposed to abuse his wife. That is, when the world is down on you, if you are a married man you can always take it out on the wife and kids at home. Aside from one intertitle introducing Lucy, there is no other indication of a father-daughter relation, and all of Burrows' actions toward Lucy would appropriately be those of a man toward a wife.
More explicit in establishing a sexual connotation in Burrows' relation to Lucy is the role of the bed in the visual composition and mise-en-scene. Sometimes, especially when Burrows is alone drinking or with his manager, the composition is toward the room's center, with the bed predominantly visible behind Burrows. When Lucy is alone in the house doing her domestic chores, looking at her treasures, or looking in the mirror, the composition is toward the right side of the room, the domestic corner that includes the hearth. On the opposite side, the bed and closet form an angle, which compositionally becomes a trap.
The first time Burrows beats Lucy, he grabs a whip from under the mattress and stands in the center of the room, holding the whip at penis height. The lighted areas in the composition form a triangle, with the pillow and Lucy's and Burrows' faces forming the triangle's corners, and the whip-phallus aligned midway between the pillow and Lucy's face. Lucy cries, cowers by the door, and clings to the far right wall away from the bed. Burrows is filmed in a symmetrically composed medium-shot, whip prominently in the center, and he points for her to move away from the right wall, that is, toward the direction of the bed. Lucy tries to create a diversion by telling him there is dust on his shoes and bends down to wipe off his shoes with her dress. Here, the change in composition from one shot to another connotes the act of fellatio. In the long shot before Lucy wipes the shoes, the whip hangs almost to the floor, but in the close-up of her wiping the shoes, the whip's tail is now at the height of Burrows' penis, and as Lucy raises her face the whip swings past her lips. As Burrows grabs Lucy's arms and throws her toward the bed near the closet, the whip is again between his legs at penis height. We see blurred, orgiastic shots of him beating her senseless. In the final beating sequence, the same connotative devices are repeated, but in a more exaggerated way. Burrows beats Lucy's face with the phallus-like whip handle, and the site of her death is actually on the bed.
Finally, the way Burrows dies emphasizes that his relation to the Chinese man was one of sexual competition after all. When the Chinese man discovers the dead Lucy on the bed and is about to shoot Burrows, both men face off and tacitly acknowledge the other's "manly" challenge that they will fight to the death over the "cause" of this woman. Posed next to a fight poster on the wall and standing with his back to the angle formed by the bed and closet (which was the trap-like locus of Lucy's rape and death), the Chinese man shoots Burrows, discharging the gun when it is held at penis-height.
In paradigmatic contrast to sexual violence is the sensual completeness of Lucy's one night at the Chinese man's home. And yet that relation is not only tender and beautiful, but it is also explicitly perverse. We can see this most clearly in the sequence where the Chinese man overcomes his lust just after the girl Lucy has received her first doll. Lucy, wrapped in her new protector's ornate, "womanly" Oriental robe, cuddles the doll with delight. However, her friend with the gentle eyes now wears a look of acquisitive passion, and he is seen moving in on Lucy, his eyes in shadow. Intercut with this sequence are shots of Burrows at his big fight; we see Burrows slugging heavily and an all-male audience, primarily working class, on their feet wildly cheering. When we see the Chinese man and Lucy again, there is fear in her eyes as she clings to the doll. He picks up the hem of her sleeve and kisses that instead, his face moving to the light where we see his illuminated, gentle, ecstatic smile as he goes away.
Significantly over-apologizing for the man's sexual intent, the intertitle announces: "His love remains a pure and holy thing—even his worst foe says this." In fact, the title makes no sense, because no one at the time knew that Lucy was there, and later her father and his friends just assumed that a sexual relation had been effected.
Griffith seems to use the title to deny the sequence's visual explicitness, yet this very denial creates suspicion about and thus confirms the reality of that sexual passion which the sequence has both presented and repressed. After the Chinese man withdraws, we see Gish examining the sleeve that had been kissed and then stirring in bed. Both gestures indicate the child's emotional, indeed sexual, involvement with this gentle yet seductive man. The visual lushness of this sequence, the child's gestures of preening and of loving the doll, the advances of the Chinese man, and the child's awakening to both maternal and sexual emotion—all these visual details offer a clear erotic message, a message which is then ambiguously denied.