The first major post-World War release from D.W. Griffith is this melodrama of a waif and an immigrant in London’s Limehouse District. This is one of the better-thought-of Griffith movies, even by those who criticize his earlier hits, but how does it look more than a century later?
The movie starts out in an unnamed part of China, where Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmass in yellowface), a local resident, has a violent encounter with some white American sailors. He is a devotee of Buddhism, and refuses to respond in kind to their taunting and fisticuffs. He decides that the West could use some civilizing, and makes up his mind to bring the word of the Buddha to that part of the world. The film then cuts to several years later, when he runs a small but tidy shop in Limehouse. It seems his missionary zeal is largely forgotten as he deals with the poverty and greed of his neighbors and the struggle to survive in this strange land. Apparently, the only place he can go for company and a taste of the familiar is a local bar that caters to Asians of all stripes – we see men in turbans as well as caftans, almost everyone is smoking, some seem to be holding opium pipes, and there are “fallen” white women scattered about as well as gambling. Memories of his time in the temple in China are contrasted with these images to show how far he has drifted from his original intentions.