Shanghai Express Film Details
Overview: A notorious woman rides a train through a dangerous situation with a British captain she loved.
Tagline: Many Men Had Loved Her — but only one had been loved in return !
Review: “Shanghai Express” is an early example of what I have come to think of as the “Stagecoach” plot; a motley group of travellers with little in common are forced to work together when their conveyance, generally a carriage or a train, is stopped or attacked by an outside force. Besides John Ford’s “Stagecoach” itself, other later examples include “North-West Frontier”, “The Journey” and “Hondo”. The plot is loosely based on Guy de Maupassant’s story “Boule de Suif” and upon a real incident which occurred in China in 1923. In 1931 China is torn by civil war between the government and a rebel army- presumably Mao’s Communists, although this is never made clear. A group of travellers are taking the express train from Peking and Shanghai; at least, it is described as an “express” even though it is scheduled to take three days to complete a journey of some 750 miles. (Peking was officially known as “Peiping” during this period, but this name was little used by Westerners). Although this was an American film, only one of the group is actually American. The others include a British army doctor, a German businessman, a British missionary, a French army officer, a mysterious Eurasian, Mr Chang, and two “coasters”, one European and one Chinese. The word “coaster” is explained as meaning a “woman who lives by her wits along the China coast. The two main characters are Captain Donald Harvey, the doctor, and Magdalen, one of the “coasters” who now goes by the name “Shanghai Lily”. It turns out that, before she took to “coasting”, Harvey and Magdalen were lovers, and although they parted acrimoniously it is clear that they are still in love with one another. (Given that Mary Magdalene has traditionally been seen as a repentant prostitute, Magdalen’s name is highly symbolic. The use of this name may also have been a reference to the fact that Marlene Dietrich’s full name was Maria Magdalena Dietrich- “Marlene” was a diminutive). Before the train reaches Shanghai it is held up by rebel troops and Chang reveals himself to be a commander in the rebel army. He is seeking for a hostage important enough to barter for the life of a rebel agent being held by Government troops, and finds one in the shape of Harvey, who is travelling to Shanghai to perform a life-saving operation on the city’s Governor. The film was made in 1932, and is considerably more frank about sexual matters than would have been permitted after the Production Code came into force two years later. Like Maupassant’s heroine, the two leading female characters are high-class prostitutes- “coaster” is only a euphemism- and no attempt is made to hide that fact, but in the end it is their courage and resourcefulness which help to save the other passengers. By contrast, “The Journey”, made in 1959 when the Code was still in force, was also loosely based on “Boule de Suif” but makes no mention of prostitution. In some other respects, however, the thirties, even the Pre-Code thirties, were still very conservative. Anna May Wong, the best-known Chinese-American actress of the period, found it difficult to secure leading roles because these were mostly romantic roles and, given prevailing attitudes towards miscegenation, audiences did not want to see a Chinese woman as the love-interest of a white man. Here, however, Wong does take a major role, that of the “coaster” Hui Fei, and makes the most of it. This was one of seven films which Dietrich made together with director Josef von Sternberg, and gives an excellent performance. Magdalen/Lily is essentially a double role because she has two distinct sides to her character, something indicated by the fact that she goes by two names. (As she says in the film’s most famous line “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily”). On the one hand she must be seductive enough (not a problem for Dietrich) for the audience to accept her as a “coaster”. On the other hand she also needs to be sympathetic enough for her repentance to seem genuine and for the audience to accept her as the love-interest of a good man. Clive Brook is not always very animated as Harvey, but this may have been deliberate as Harvey seems to have been conceived as a “stiff-upper-lip” character, the sort of man who does not find it easy to show his emotions. Warner Oland is also good as Chang, another difficult role to play. Chang is a sadistic bully, yet the film-makers seem to have had some sympathy with the cause he represents. His main motivation is resentment at the way the Chinese have been treated by Westerners, and this resentment is shown to be partly justified when the German businessman, Baum, is exposed as an opium trader. Some of the other passengers are rather arrogant in their attitude towards the Chinese. (“Chang” is presumably a pseudonym as we learn that he is the son of a white father and Chinese mother. He has possibly taken a Chinese surname to symbolise his support for Chinese nationalism). The film is notable for its striking black-and-white chiaroscuro photography, anticipating the development of film noir later in the decade. (It won an Oscar for Best Cinematography). It has some fine acting performances, a gripping plot and some excellent dialogue. It remains one of the most memorable Hollywood productions of the early thirties. 8/10
Country: United States
Language: English, French, Cantonese, German
Duration: 82 min
Genre: Adventure, Drama, Romance
Also known as: Shanghai Express,Schanghai Express,El expreso de Shanghai,上海特急,Shanghaï Express,Shanghai-ekspressen,Shanghai-Express,Shanghain pikajuna,Shanghai expressen,Shanghaiexpressen,Sanghai expressz,Шанхайский экспресс,Sangai Express,O Expresso de Xangai,Szanghaj Ekspres,O Expresso de Shanghai