February 7, 2018
Shanghai Express – U.S., 1932
Were I asked to picture a romantic hero, I would likely picture someone vastly different than Captain Donald Harvey. Stoic and emotionally restrained regardless of the scenario presented in front of him, the only clue that he is in love is the watch he carries with him, a gift from the love that got away five years earlier. There is no pause when he is reunited with her by chance, no look in his eyes that betrays the long-restrained emotional pining going on in his heart, no clasp of her hand or shudder at an incidental touch. No, I imagine that, were we to see them, his conversations with his superior officers would bear a striking resemblance to those he has with the woman who broke his heart. Is this off-putting? Slightly, but combined with the slow, milky, somewhat monotone delivery of his great love, it’s more than a little peculiar.
To be fair, the relationship just referred to is actually one of the least interesting of the many plotlines that run through Josef von Sternberg’s impressively shot monster hit Shanghai Express. Theirs, after all, is a love that must only overcome the stigma that comes with a woman having had what society deemed an unacceptable number of lovers, which I believe at the time was any number above one. Vastly more interesting is the case of Henry Chang (Warner Oland), a pessimistic traveler whose feelings about his parentage are both startling and intriguing. Even more involving is the character of Hui Fei (Anna May Wong), a mysterious young woman who is anything but traditional, yet seems to have a better understanding of both politics and humankind than anyone else on board, with the possible exception of the lady unaffectionately referred to as “Shanghai Lily” (Marlene Dietrich) Fortunately, Chang is given the screen time the character deserves; Hui Fei, unfortunately, is relegated to a scene here and there, speaks little, and, while playing an important role in the film’s climax, remains an enigma till the end.
In Shanghai Express, we follow the passengers of a train bound for Shanghai from modern-day Beijing. It is 1932, and China is in the midst of a Civil War, meaning that even a ride between those two relatively close cities is fraught with peril. In early scenes, we are introduced to a number a passengers – an elderly woman who smuggles a dog onto the train, a French officer who doesn’t speak a word of English, a missionary who refuses to share a cabin with a woman he deems sinful, and the aforementioned captain (Clive Brook), Shanghai Lily, and Chang, among others. Almost immediately, the doctor is reunited with Shanghai Lily. At the same time, we begin to get clues that Henry Chang is more than he lets on. This becomes even more apparent after Chinese soldiers stop the train, search the passengers, and detain one, presumably a member of the resistance. It is then that we see Chang sending a telegram in code - the message: for the recipient to detain the train at all costs.
It could be argued that Shanghai Express is a tale told in three unequal parts. The first part introduces the characters and spends a great deal of time reacquainting the doctor with his former lover. The middle of the film deviates slightly, as the chaos of China’s Civil War comes into focus and it becomes clear just how perilous the journey unfolding onscreen actually is. Like many war zones, location determines the soldiers you have to look out for, and there are frequent skirmishes between armies that seem to have no qualms about putting bystanders in harm’s way. There are frightening interrogations, as well as the ever-present threat of death, and the tension is quite palpable in this part of the film. In the end, however, the film feels compelled to return to the story of separated lovers and answer that infernal question, Will they or won’t they? Well, of course, they will. However, just because we know this doesn’t mean that characters will hasten their own realization of it, and therefore the scene goes on a bit long. As for me, I was more interested in the fate of Hui Fei. Alas, that, like so much else about her, remains untold.
Like many films of the time, it was deemed necessary to sprinkle bits and pieces of comedy throughout, and many of these moments are simply distracting. Just what are we to make of the wealthy elderly woman who shouts for the attendant to take care of her dog, or, for that matter, of the passenger with a penchant for making bets on even the most morbid of possibilities? To me, these moments of intended joviality fell flat, and the quirkiness of the characters seemed unearned. It was almost as if the writers were compensating for the lack of brevity in the middle of the film. But ask yourself this question: Would you laugh if a woman were concerned about the safety of a beloved pet or proposed a bet on whether you’d make it to Shanghai alive? I know I wouldn’t were I in the characters’ situation, so why would I as a member of the audience?
There are, of course, parts of the film that have not dated particularly well. The film opens with a gong and a few questionable images intended to get viewers ready for a film set in China. There’s also the doctor who both smokes himself and sees nothing wrong with a man of medicine dispensing cigarettes. And then there’s the film’s depiction of both China and the Chinese. In one scene, Chang tells one of his traveling companions that in China “time and life have no value,” and in another, we see a Chinese man happily smiling as his cow blocks the train track. In fact, as I reflect on the film, it seems that the only two Chinese characters presented as being intelligent or multidimensional were Chang and Hui Fei, and in the case of Hui Fei, even this is problematic, for it is implied that only women of a certain lowly profession could ever afford expensive clothes and a first-class train ticket. And of course, there’s the film’s politics and the fact that the side of the Civil War that the characters seem to be rooting for is no longer seen in the same light by historians.
But I digress. Despite all its faults - and the focus on the relationship is the most egregious - Shanghai Express remains a compelling film. I was drawn into the characters’ plight and riveted by the events that unfolded as they tried to get themselves out of a very dangerous situation. I grew to admire Dietrich’s character and to empathize with Hui Fei. I also watched Chang with a sense of foreboding, at every minute expecting his soft words to sentence our heroes to their tragic deaths. And while I wasn’t terrible moved by the romance, I admit to being a bit choked up when Shanghai Lily’s first steps into free Peking find her replacing something that the love of her life has lost. She just can’t help herself, and, in fairness, neither could I. Despite my difficulties with the hero’s icy demeanor and Dietrich’s occasionally off-beat delivery, I still found myself invested enough in their storyline to experience a sense of relief when they finally find themselves in each other’s arms. It didn’t make me believe that the captain would pine for her for five years, but maybe that doesn’t matter. After all, if a movie can satisfy the heart with a simple embrace, then it has done its job. Still, 5 years? (on DVD and Blu-ray as part of Criterion’s box set Dietrich & Von Sternberg in Hollywood)
3 and a half stars
*Shanghai Express was the top-grossing film of 1932, raking in $3.7 million at the box office.
*It was nominated for Best Film, Best Director, and Best Cinematography. It won in the latter category.