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David Carradine and Barbara Hershey in Boxcar Bertha

David Carradine and Barbara Hershey in Boxcar Bertha

No disrespect to Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood, whose filming stretched over many years as the boy grew up. But when some Slate people said it’s “completely unique” and “Nobody else would undertake this project,” I was like, “Just a minute, please.”

David Carradine wrote and directed a movie about Mata Hari, starring his daughter Calista Carradine. It was meant to follow from her teen years to age 41, when the famous spy was executed by a firing squad. The first installment was filmed in 1977, with a couple weeks more of shooting added every year or so, as money was available. Some scenes were shot in Europe and India. It was a monumental passion project, and David Carradine talked about it in his book Endless Highway.

Various journalists have said it was meant to span 30 years. Somebody else reported that it would cover Mata Hari’s life from 15 to 30, and would thus be a 15-year project. There seems to have been confusion. In a 1981 interview, D. Carradine mentioned that even though the subject had been dead for more than 60 years, new facts about her life were still being discovered. He said, “It may be three movies.”

Just before that he said, “The film will probably not exist at a single level or reality.” Which it makes sense to interpret as, it’s a mystery AND a biography AND a war story, or some similar trio of genres. But another writer took that literally and spoke as if the work would actually be three separate movies, and someone else called it a trilogy. And there’s a Carradine quotation about being almost done with the first film, with maybe one more scene to do.

Movie star crush

I fondly remember the TV series Kung Fu, and I’m sure David Carradine’s character Kwai Chang Caine had something to do with the formation of my preferences in men. Later on when the movie Boxcar Bertha came out, it was my favorite for a long time. The picture on this page is from a Playboy photo session commemorating the movie, extra hot because Carradine and Barbara Hershey were deep in love in real life.

What follows is from a 1979 chapter of my book Call Someplace Paradise:

On the way to work night shift, at the Lincoln Boulevard onramp to the Santa Monica Freeway, I saw a family group looking for a ride. They were headed for Hollywood but decided Westwood would do just as well. My front door on the passenger side is still crunched in so they piled in the back with a guitar case and backpack and various other paraphernalia. The man was Bill Sunshine, a filmmaker who documents births, mostly home births, for people who want to relive the moment on video. This is what people get now instead of bronzed baby shoes.

He introduced his wife as Calista Carradine, who plays Mata Hari in her father’s film, which they have been working on since she was a child. The concept is to have the same actress fill all the different age roles by the simple method of shooting the film as she grows up. I read about David Carradine’s ambitious project a couple weeks ago, and said so. Bill Sunshine talked some about the movie and, since I work at the hospital, a little about the advancing age and medical problems of John Carradine. The couple have been married for six weeks and are reduced to hitchhiking because of a drunk driving incident during their honeymoon. The boy, about 9, was introduced as Jason Sunshine. The guitar case contained picnic supplies. They’d spent the day at the beach.

A few months later I was at a screening that David Carradine attended. Though I had watched Kung Fu religiously, I figured half the world probably told him that. So I told him I’d picked up his daughter hitchhiking. In another of his books, The Kill Bill Diary, a page says…

…a promo reel for Mata Hari which I made to show at Cannes in 1980, made up of scenes from the first three years, ’77. ’78 and ’79, starring my daughter, from fourteen years old in India to her execution at the age of seventeen in a forest in Holland….

How did that get published? Mata Hari wasn’t executed at 17. WTF? Anyway, at the international film festival, D. Carradine was given a special award for writing the score of the fragmentary film. Over time, Mata Hari grew its own legend. A lot of people heard of it, few saw any of it. There were disturbing rumors and reports, a mild example being someone’s comment about watching D. Carradine directing a scene where his daughter and a male actor were naked and going at it.

The film was included in a couple of “greatest movies never made” webpages. One of them said the action spanned 20 years, and noted that it was supposed to have been released in the summer of 1998. The reviewer called it “an incredible concept that would have made a groundbreaking film that would have served as a fine legacy to Carradine.” It must have been money that stood in the way of completing and releasing the movie, because the filmmaker lived until 2009. According to IMBD, Mata Hari now seems to be one movie, scheduled for release in December of 2014.

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boxcar-bertha

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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