Frustrated in his mission to bring peace to the English, Chinese aristocrat Cheng Haun wallows in opium addiction until he determines to rescue Lucy from her abusive father, Battling Butler.
Based on the sensitively titled story `The Chink and the Child' from Thomas Burke's collection Limehouse Nights, this initially seems like a typical silent melodrama. But, there's actually little traditional action in this profound study of character and mood, which devotes more time to the cinematic emoting of Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess than it does to the theatrical histrionics of Donald Crisp. Moreover, D.W. Griffith relaxes his strict Victorian morality to explore such contentious issues as opium eating, sado-masochism and inter-racial romance.
This was Griffith's first studio-bound feature and he tailors his lighting and décor to enhance both the authenticity and intensity of the scenario. He was greatly aided in this by Hendrik Sartov (who assisted Billy Bitzer with the numerous close-ups) and editor James Smith, who achieves a trance-like metre that was wholly commensurate with the idyllic seclusion in which Gish and Barthelmess cocoon themselves and the temperament of a world still in the throes of recovering from global conflict. Gish initially refused to play the waif and missed some of the six-week rehearsal period with influenza. Yet, she was to give one of her finest performances, with the delicacy of the sequence in which she fixes a smile with her fingers contrasting with the visceral terror she exhibits while cowering in the closet from the axe-wielding Crisp. Barthelmess similarly excels himself, although he borrowed many of the `Yellow Man's' mannerisms from George Fawcett, who had developed the part during pre-production.
Forced to buy the picture back for $250,000 from Paramount's Adolph Zukor, Griffith released it through the newly formed United Artists and used tints, live prologues, orchestras and choirs to boost its box-office prospects. It made a fortune, but its filmic influence was most keenly felt among French Impressionists like Louis Delluc, Germaine Dulac and Marcel L'Herbier and German `street realists’ like Karl Grune and G.W. Pabst.
Definitely a silent drama fighting against the traditional limitations of the form and the strict social mores of the day. One of Lillian Gish's most moving performances.