young teenage girl, Bertha (Hershey) looks to the sky in awe as her father’s dust crop plane works a field in Arkansas. He comes down after his plane is encountering technical problems with the job only half done. The boss is immediately on hand cussing about the unfinished field and sends the pilot straight back into the skies… unless he does otherwise he threatens not to pay him.
The plane though fails to clear the trees on take off and crashes killing her father instantly. Some men have been working on a nearby railroad and witness the crash. One of the workers comes rushing to the scene, ‘Big’ Bill Shelly (D. Carradine)… the distraught girl attacks the boss who sent her father to his death, he pushes her to the floor, which enrages Bill and a fight develops around the body of the dead man.
We then get the titles, which inform that the film is set in the era of the Great Depression, a variety of newspaper headlines underline this point… ‘DEPRESSION CRIPPLES US’ etc.
After the titles we see that ‘Big’ Bill is a volatile union activist, he is addressing a fairly small band of railroad workers and incites them to riot against the thugs who have been hired to make them work and call off strike action. Bertha stumbles upon the rally just before the violence kicks off. ‘Big’ Bill spots her and takes her under his wing and wastes no time in taking her to a boxcar where he seduces the young lady. When she awakes the union man is gone but has kindly left her some cash in her shoe… the gesture is to help the recent orphan as opposed for services rendered, me thinks.
She moves on and sits in on a craps game, where she befriends a gambler Rake (Primus) a “Yankee” from the north… who’s presence ain’t to popular with the southern boys. They go to a card game with a local businessman, who round the table starts making threats about killing that ‘red’ Shelly. He spots that Rake is trying to cheat and pulls a gun on him. Bertha guns him down and the flee into the night.
Next day Bertha & Rake decide to get out of town they hop onto a boxcar, which just happens to be occupied by ‘Big’ Bill and his cohorts. The female tear away jumps straight into the union man’s arms much to the disappointment of the gambling man.
The train pulls into Memphis, where the police are waiting for the activists, they are all arrested and slung into jail. The union men are put in cells and ‘Big’ Bill meets an old friend of his… a harmonic playing black man called Von Morton (Casey).
The sheriff comes to check on the new prisoners and sees the white man chatting away with the black man, so he asks his officer who he is, the officer informs that he’s ‘Big’ Bill Shelly the ‘red’. The sheriff says “I don’t know about no Bolshevik, but I know sure enough he’s a n*gger lover… go over there and make a n*gger out of that white one” So the officer goes into the cell and starts to beat the union man with a cosh… the inmates riot until the McIver thugs turn up and start to blast into the cage indiscriminately quickly sedating the rioters.
The surviving men are put to work on a chain gang. Bertha turns up and using her feminine charm she distracts the guard and they break out, stealing the officer’s car. Unfortunately the car breaks down near the railroad… the gang though pushes the vehicle onto the track and then hold up a train, stealing $12,000 and making their getaway on the train.
After Rake reads a newspaper article to the gang on their crime ‘Big’ Bill takes exception at being called a criminal and denotes his $3,000 share to the union.
From here on in the union man decides to inherit the mantle as a Robin Hood-of-the-rails by stealing from the rich folks and giving to the blighted workers. Bertha & Bill soon become the most infamous train robbers in the South. But as their crimes become more & more blatant, the law aided by the McIvers become ever more ruthless, and the Bonnie & Clyde-esque couple discover too late that their lifetime of larceny may be sending them on a one-way ticket to a deadly destination.
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By: Stuart Fitzgerald
In 1967 a movie called ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ sent tremors through the ‘established’ movie business. Directed by Arthur Penn the movie shook up the studios that were still churning out formulaic genre films. An endless stream of big budget epics, musicals and Doris Day & Rock Hudson pictures were slopped out to the drive-in audiences. Then Penn’s film was released and its success gave birth to a new era in Hollywood. An era where directors called the shots and ran the show, it was a time that spawned talents like Robert Altman, Dennis Hopper, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Speilberg, George Lucas, Woody Allen, William Friedkin, Bob Rafelson, Hal Ashby, Brian De Palma and Terence Malik to name just a few.
‘Bonnie and Clyde’ had been a huge success and a host of gangster pictures followed. Roger Corman producer of many low-budget exploitation films, had already cashed in on the genre with ‘Bloody Mama’ (1970) which starred Shelley Winters as the gangster Ma Baker…the film also featured a young Robert De Niro as son to the infamous lady gangster. ‘Bloody Mama’ did good box office and ever keen to cash-in on the phenomena Corman hired young director Martin Scorsese to continue the genre with ‘Boxcar Bertha’.
The film is loosely based on ‘Sister of the Road’ the autobiography of Bertha Thompson a radical, hard-living woman who during the Great Depression years robbed the railways with her lover and his gang. They gave the majority of their loot to impoverished union families who were being worked to the bone by the domineering rich.
The film really is an exploitation film with plenty of sex & violence and some great comedy… thanks mostly to Barry Primus’ character Rake the gambler who injects much needed humor into the proceedings.
Barbara Hershey is also excellent as Bertha… she perfectly balances the dichotomy of her character between whore & virgin. At times seemingly child-like as her face bursts into a huge grin as she announces to a room full of rich folk “this is a stick up”… other scenes see her adapt to life in a whore house without trauma.
The film is beautifully shot but lacks the consummate editing that has become such a Scorsese trademark in his subsequent films.
Ultimately ‘Boxcar Bertha’ feels more like a Corman picture than a Scorsese one but is none-the-less a thoroughly a enjoyable film and definitely worth seeing, as it is the first part of Scorsese’s gangster quintet… the others being Mean Streets (1973), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995) and Gangs of New York (2002).
The real Boxcar Bertha came from a long line of radicals. Her grandfather, Moses Thompson, published a magazine during the 1800’s called ‘The Female Emancipator’ that championed women’s right to vote.
President Franklin D Roosevelt appears in the film thanks to the archive footage used in the opening montage.
Martin Scorsese has a penchant for cameo’s in his films. In ‘Boxcar Bertha’ he appears as a client at a brothel.
‘Boxcar Bertha’ opened on a double bill with Ray Austin’s ‘1000 Convicts and a Woman’ in 1972.
Apparently his own film embarrassed Scorsese. He showed it to John Cassavetes, veteran actor/director who told him, “You spent a year of your life making a piece of sh*t. He thought the film was unworthy of Scorsese’s talent!
Eccentric actress Barbara Hershey had a relationship with her ‘Boxcar Bertha’ co-star David Carradine, the father of her child Free… he later changed his name to Tom. Hershey briefly changed her name to Barbara Seagull, allegedly to atone for accidentally killing a seagull while driving.
David Carradine is probably best remembered for his leading role in the TV series ‘Kung Fu’.
Bernie Casey who played Von Morton was an ex-NFL American Football star. After ‘Boxcar Bertha’ he featured in Blaxploitation films such as ‘Cleopatra Jones’ (1973) and ‘Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde’ (1976). In the 80’s he went into comedy with ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ (1984) and its sequels, as well as ‘Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure’ (1989).
Martin Scorsese used many of the actors from ‘Boxcar Bertha’ again in latter films. Barbara Hershey ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ (1988); David Carradine ‘Mean Streets’ (1973); Barry Primus ‘New York, New York’ (1977); Victor Argo ‘Mean Streets’, ‘Taxi Driver’ (1975), ‘After Hours’ (1985), ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’; Harry Northup ‘Who’s That Knocking At My Door?’ (1969), ‘Mean Streets’, ‘Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’ (1974), ‘Taxi Driver’, ‘New York, New York’, ‘Amazing Stories: Mirror Mirror’ (1986).
Director Scorsese said of ‘Boxcar Bertha’ “Mostly I attempted to show the characters as people acting like children, playing with violence until they start getting killed - then they’re stuck in a real game, a life and death game. I used the element of surprise violence to emphasise that when you least expect it, things are destroyed, people are killed – that’s very important to the picture”. Sangster J, Scorsese; (Virgin Film 2002)
Corman’s only instructions to the young director was that the film had to have some form of nudity or titillation every 15 minutes and that it didn’t go over the budget of $600,000.
Apparently David Carradine & Hershey were dating at the time of the movie, hence they say that their love making scenes were not faked… by the glow in Hershey’s cheeks, I for one are not going to doubt them!
know some Boxcar Bertha trivia that we could add? [Please
send it in]
Dill's Sawmill, Caney Creek Bottom, Arkansas (approximately 6 miles from Cale, Arkansas)
A hotel in Camden, Arkansas
Reader, Arkansas, home of the famous (locally) Reader Railroad, the last steam engine-drawn train in those "parts"
Caney Creek Bottoms, Arkansas [Thanks to James Hairston]
Can you help? Do you know any of the Reader, Arkansas filming locations used for Boxcar Bertha? [Please send them in]
Disappointing lack of extras.|
The soundtrack to the film uses Von Morton's melonconic harmonica to capture the feel of The Great Depression as well as other music from the era.
Soundtrack Available: Never On Any Format
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|Working on a chain gang|
|The happy reunion?|| |