My top ten reasons why Boxcar Bertha immediately was a favorite the minute it came out, and stayed in the “I Heart This” category:
- Memorable love scene
- Horrible death scene
- Released in what was for me the thick of the “Sixties”
- Symbolizes the “Sixties” very adequately
- Grandpa was a union organizer
- Great-grandpa was an abolitionist
- I love David Carradine because of “Kung-fu” on TV
- In this role, Barbara Hershey reminds me of a girl I knew in Venice, CA
- I adore Barbara Hershey
- “Life made her an outcast. Love made her an outlaw.”
Bertha Thompson’s daddy is a crop duster, and a rich guy makes him fly even though the plane is in bad repair. Now she’s a homeless orphan, a real survivor with both guts and luck, caught in the Great Depression. She keeps running into union organizer Bill Shelly, who is characterized as a “nigger lover,” among other things. Bill is always getting the shit beat out of him by people who disagree with his politics.
They both ride the rails. Using her feminine wiles, she helps Bill and his friends escape from a chain gang. The set a car on fire on the railroad tracks so the train has to stop. They take all the money and steal the train. There are plenty of fights, car chases, crashes, fires, robberies. A newspaper story about their criminality offends Bill. To show that he’s a revolutionary, not a common crook, he decides to take his share of the loot to the union hall. Bertha amuses herself by holding two well-dressed men at gunpoint, ordering them to stand up, sit down, etc. This may have been Hershey’s finest cinematic moment, and I mean that in all sincerity.
Hershey and Carradine have both said that the sex was unsimulated, as in, they were really doing it. The movie was made at the peak of their real-life love affair, and it shows.
Bill’s sore spot is poked when people keep reminding him he’s no longer a union man, but now a common criminal. They get caught trying to kidnap a raiload tycoon. Bertha escapes, Bill is sentenced. He’s back on a chain gang again, still getting shit beat out of him.
Bertha is picked up by a woman who turns out to be a madam. An anthropologist rents her time and asks a bunch of questions. She’s reunited with Bill. They kiss, the G-men break in and capture him and nail him to side of boxcar. They put writing over his head, obvious Christ symbolism, you know, like the scroll at the top of some crucifixes. A black guy surprises them and shoots all of Bill’s enemies. The train starts to move, and he’s still nailed to the boxcar. Bertha runs alongside, “Don’t take him, don’t take him.” It’s an unforgettable image, like in Rabbit Proof Fence where the mothers run after the government goons who take their kids away.
Given the Jesus analogy, it’s kind of weird that Barbara Hershey later portrayed Mary Magdalene in The Last Temptation of Christ, which, come to think of it, was also directed by Martin Scorsese. Boxcar Bertha has been called “Scorsese’s exploitation flick” and he played a small part it in, as a john in a brothel. It was produced by Roger Corman, who taught Scorsese what a $600,000 budget can do. The script was loosely based on a book, Sister of the Road, which was loosely based on the life of a real person, but apparently didn’t have much in common with her at all.
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