Cast & Crew
In rural Arkansas during the 1930s Depression, forthright sixteen-year-old farm girl Bertha Thompson watches as her father Jack plummets to his death while crop dusting. Having witnessed Jack's boss knowingly order her father to fly in a faulty plane, Bertha, hysterical with grief, attacks the callous man with the help of Jack's black mechanic, Von Morton, and Big Bill Shelly, a labor organizer who is working on a railroad gang nearby. Days later, rootless Bertha jumps onto a railroad boxcar to start a new life, carrying nothing but her clothes. Stopping at a rail yard, she is soon reunited with Bill, who is preaching to an angry crowd of workers, urging them to fight the railroad bosses and unionize Reader Rail Road. When violence erupts between the workers and the police, Bill whisks Bertha away to safety and finds a meal for her. Attracted by her equally rebellious nature, Bill gently seduces the virgin in a boxcar that night and leaves her some money before he disappears. Bertha uses the money to win at a hobo camp craps game against Rake Brown, a silent cardsharp. With Bertha's persistence, Rake finally utters something in a "Yankee" accent, immediately guaranteeing that he and Bertha are ousted from the camp, which is filled with Southerners. Realizing he cannot ply his trade without fitting in, Rake soon accepts Bertha's offer to teach him a Southern accent and idioms in trade for sharing the money gained from fleecing wealthy men in gambling parlors. Happy to have food and a place to stay, Bertha acquiesces to his sexual advances as well. One night, when a cheated customer, an attorney, pulls a gun on them, Bertha is forced to shoot the man in self-defense. Just outside, vengeful locals and the police are beating striking railroad workers and burning their camp, and Rake and Bertha jump on a boxcar with escaping workers. Spotting Bill, Bertha climbs into his arms, easily forsaking Rake, who realizes he is no match for Bill's charms. Soon after, when the police stop the car, Bertha escapes; however, Bill and Rake, along with workers, are taken to a jail. Bill finds Von there, but when he tries to speak with him, the attending officers call him a "nigger lover" and beat Bill mercilessly, inciting a riot between the prisoners and the bigoted police. Although Bill, Rake and Von survive the ensuing massacre against the prisoners, they are then sent to work on a chain gang as punishment. Days later, Bertha, posing as a woman in distress, distracts deputy sheriff Harvey Hall from his duty overseeing the railroad work, thus giving Bill the opportunity to knock him out with a shovel and escape with Rake, Von and Bertha in a stolen car. In the ensuing chase, Bill skillfully evades the pursuing police, including the sheriff, who drives off a cliff, but soon the car breaks down. After pushing the vehicle onto the tracks to cause the oncoming freight train to crash, the four rob the train of $12,000 and flee to a hideout, where they split the money. Days later, Rake reads the newspaper reports of their escapade out loud, including a description of Rake as a "coward" and Bertha as a "whore" implicated in the shooting of an attorney. As Bertha protests that the charges are false, Bill, Rake and Von realize that they have no choice but to continue a life of crime in order to survive. Still committed to the plight of the workers, Bill takes his $3,000 share to nearby union headquarters, but organizer Joe Cox refuses his money, insisting that his criminal reputation can only hurt the union now. Without the option of real work or unionizing, Bill stages a bank robbery in which he insists that in addition to handing over most of the bank's cash, the cashiers must add $10 to each worker's paycheck. They then rob the Reader Railroad, hoping to terrorize its owner, power-hungry H. Buckram Sartoris. Flustered but not intimidated, Sartoris immediately hires two sadistic railroad detectives, the McIvers, to capture Bill and the others. Days later, Bill, depressed that he is unable to return to honest work, suggests to Bertha that she leave him and their criminal life, but Bertha refuses out of love for Bill. Soon after, the gang robs Sartoris and his guests at a party the Sartoris is hosting. As the michievous Bertha takes their money and jewels, playfully draping them about her, Sartoris accuses Bill of being merely a common thief instead of a real Bolshevik. Buoyed by malice for Sartoris and confidence in their skills, the men later attempt to kidnap Sartoris on his own train, but the McIvers and several other thugs are waiting for them. While Bertha safely flees, Rake, feeling powerless and exhausted, bravely tries to defeat the McIvers and is killed. Von and Bill are subsequently sent to jail, where the police brutally beat Bill for his past union organizing efforts. Meanwhile, the now penniless Bertha is forced to work at a brothel, where she easily charms and satisfies her customers, but the work drains her of any hope. Then one night, Bertha recognizes the sound of Von's harmonica playing as she passes a black night club. Spotting Von on the stage, Bertha runs to embrace her friend, who tells her that, although Bill has recently escaped prison, he is quite ill. Von takes Bertha to the shack in which Bill is hiding, where the two reunite in bittersweet tears. As a weary and ill Bill warns her that his days are numbered, Sartoris' thugs arrive at the shack and beat both of them viciously, crucifying Bill by nailing his hands to a boxcar. When Von realizes what is happening, he reflexively grabs a shotgun and kills each of the assailants, including the McIvers, and releases Bertha's bound hands. As Bertha runs along the tracks while the boxcar carries Bill's lifeless body away, she begs the train not to take him from her.
Samuel Z. Arkoff
John William Corrington
Joyce H. Corrington
Don F. Johnson
Julian F. Myers
James H. Nicholson
Originally conceived as a period crime drama, set during the Depression just like Bonnie and Clyde (1967), but closer in tone and style to the much more exploitive Bloody Mama (1970), Roger Corman's violent account of real-life criminal Ma Barker and her murderous brood, Boxcar Bertha (1972) turned out to be something much more ambitious and engaging than the lurid promotional campaign which promised nudity, sex and violence. Corman's hand was clearly evident in every aspect of the film's publicity but the movie wasn't the typical drive-in fare from American International Pictures due to the young, untested director Martin Scorsese.
The New York filmmaker, who had made his feature film debut in 1967 with the barely distributed Who's That Knocking at My Door? (aka I Call First), had relocated to Los Angeles in 1971 to assist in the editing of Medicine Ball Caravan, a cross-country concert tour documentary that attempted to duplicate the success of Woodstock (1970), a film Scorsese also helped edit. It was while he was working as a sound effects cutter on John Cassavetes' Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) that Scorsese was offered his first Hollywood feature. "I had met Roger Corman the first month I got to Hollywood, in January 1971," Scorsese recalled, "but I heard nothing from him for months. He'd wanted me to do a sequel to Bloody Mama, but then he offered me Boxcar Bertha. I worked hard preparing Boxcar Bertha, laying out every shot, five hundred shots in drawings, but Roger Corman said, "Let me see what your planning is like." He went through the first ten pages, then flipped the rest and said, "You're fine because you've got to shoot this picture in twenty-four days, and you've got all the shots. If you're this well planned, you're going to be okay." (From Martin Scorsese: Interviews, edited by Peter Brunette).
Scorsese was given a $600,000 budget for shooting on location in Arkansas with only three days allotted for the rerecording mix but he was eager to accept the challenge, promising to work in Corman's demand for sex, violence or explosions every fifteen pages of the script. Based on Sister of the Road, the 1937 autobiography of Bertha Thompson, co-authored with Dr. Ben Reitman, the Boxcar Bertha screenplay was adapted by Joyce H. and John William Corrington and then rewritten by Scorsese (uncredited). While the movie takes extensive liberties with the true story, it does capture the Depression era milieu, focusing on the hobo jungles, whorehouses and freight car hopping that befitted the open road lifestyle of its free spirited heroine.
Although Scorsese's debut feature Who's That Knocking at My Door? proved that he had talent to burn, the young director was still learning the technical aspects of making a professional feature and credits cinematographer John Stephens (Seconds , Billy Jack ) with helping him understand the importance of shooting coverage material as opposed to just concentrating on master shots. Scorsese also acknowledges assistant producer Paul Rapp and the AIP crew on Boxcar Bertha as invaluable instructors in his Hollywood education.
When Scorsese's first few days of shooting were screened for the AIP studio executives, however, he was almost fired from the project. Executive producer Samuel Z. Arkoff complained to Roger Corman, "There was nothing but train wheels going around and around, train wheels going this way, train wheels going that way...For Christsakes Roger, what have we got here, a fornicating documentary on trains?" Scorsese's intention was to shoot all of the transition train footage first to use later as cutaways in the narrative and once Corman explained that to Arkoff, Scorsese was allowed to continue without close supervision.
While Boxcar Bertha was a strictly-for-hire project, Scorsese's fingerprints are all over it and you can see his emerging trademark style and thematic interests in various scenes from the use of the zoom lens in a sequence where the gang runs through a tunnel to unexpected bursts of violence to religious iconography that references his Catholic upbringing (Carradine's Christ-like activist character is crucified in the final scene). Some film scholars have also noted homages to favorite Scorsese films such as The Wizard of Oz (Bertha's first appearance in the film in long pigtails references Dorothy's appearance in the 1939 MGM film), David Lean's The Wife of General Ling (1937), Zoltan Korda's Drums (1938), and Alexander Korda's The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936), the latter three appearing as film posters outside a movie theatre. Like one of his idols, Alfred Hitchcock, Scorsese also puts in a brief cameo appearance, playing a customer in a whorehouse.
Barbara Hershey, who was romantically involved with her co-star David Carradine at the time, later said Boxcar Bertha "was the most fun I'd ever had on a movie. We covered eight years of a story in four weeks of shooting, and that could have been a nightmare, but in this case, it was a delight. We managed to improvise. I remember Marty designing a shot in the reflection of a car. I'd never been with a director who thought like that." Hershey also recalls introducing Scorsese to the novel The Last Temptation of Christ, which ironically enough, she would make with him almost sixteen years later in 1988, playing Mary Magdalene. David Carradine, in an interview for Psychotronic Magazine, claimed that it was He, not Hershey, who encouraged the director to read the Nikos Kazantzakis novel. Regardless of who should take the credit, Carradine and Hershey enjoyed a creative collaboration with Scorsese and were completely comfortable with the nudity and sex scenes required of them. The couple's very public love affair also helped generate some interest in the film, especially after they appeared in a layout for Playboy magazine that was shot on a movie-inspired boxcar set and was much more explicit than the actual film.
When Boxcar Bertha opened theatrically it was paired on a double bill with AIP's 1000 Convicts and a Woman (1971) and was ignored by most major film critics. Still, there were a few who caught it and reviewed it favorably such as Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times who wrote, "Boxcar Bertha is a weirdly interesting movie, and not really the sleazy exploitation film the ads promise....Director Martin Scorsese has gone for mood and atmosphere more than for action, and his violence is always blunt and unpleasant never liberating and exhilarating, as the New Violence is supposed to be." Howard Thompson of The New York Times also endorsed it, writing, "Boxcar Bertha, believe it or not, is an interesting surprise...The thoughtful, ironic script thins only toward the middle and the whole thing has been beautifully directed by Martin Scorsese, who really comes into his own here." Dennis Hunt of The San Francisco Chronicle was one of the few critics to pan it completely, stating "Boxcar Bertha is a dismal imitation of Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde...[The film] features carelessly developed, vacuous characters and was made on a budget too spare for the acquisition of the huge number of cars, clothes and sets necessary to properly establish the '30s look."
Reviews aside, Roger Corman and the executives at AIP realized they had a uniquely talented director in their midst and assigned Scorsese to do I Escaped from Devil's Island (1973) in Costa Rica with Jim Brown. But Scorsese was destined for something greater than another AIP exploitation film. "Next thing I know," he recalled, I showed a two and a half hour rough cut of Boxcar Bertha to a bunch of friends Carradine and all the people in the picture and Corman and Cassavetes. Cassavetes took me aside the next day and spoke to me for three hours. He said, "Don't do any more exploitation pictures. Do something that you really [want] do something better"...I said, "The only thing I have is this Season of the Witch." Scorsese described the storyline to Cassavetes who advised him to rewrite it and make it more personal. As a result the revised Season of the Witch screenplay became Mean Streets and when it premiered at the New York Film Festival of 1973, Scorsese was immediately hailed as one of the most exciting directors of his generation, joining the hallowed ranks of such contemporaries as Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Brian De Palma.
Producer: Roger Corman, Samuel Z. Arkoff (uncredited)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Joyce H. Corrington, John William Corrington; Ben L. Reitman (book "Sister of the Road")
Cinematography: John Stephens
Music: Gib Guilbeau, Thad Maxwell
Film Editing: Buzz Feitshans
Cast: Barbara Hershey ('Boxcar' Bertha Thompson), David Carradine ('Big' Bill Shelly), Barry Primus (Rake Brown), Bernie Casey (Von Morton), John Carradine (H. Buckram Sartoris), Victor Argo (McIver #1), David R. Osterhout (McIver #2)
by Jeff Stafford
Martin Scorsese: Interviews, edited by Peter Brunette
Martin Scorsese: A Journey by Mary Pat Kelly
Psychotronic Video: Interview with David Carradine by Tom Rainone Filmfacts
Martin Scorsese: A Biography by Vincent Lobrutto
The Films of Martin Scorsese: 1963-77, Authorship and Context by Leighton Grist
According to both David Carradine and Barbara Hershey, their sex scene was not faked.
The train sequences were shot first and they took about a week. This was done to get the most complicated element of the production, working with a moving train, out of the way first.
as a john who is just finishing dressing himself when he asks Bertha if he can spend the night.
This was Martin Scorsese's first feature film. He was given $600,000 and told to make an exploitation film.
Victor Argo and David Osterhout, who play railroad detectives in the film, are listed in the opening credits as "The McIvers." In the closing credits, Reader Railroad of Reader, AR, and its management and employees are thanked. Boxcar Bertha was partially shot on location in Arkansas, as noted in the Los Angeles Times review.
The opening credits for the film include this written statement: "The following events are adapted from the true experiences of "Boxcar Bertha Thompson," as related in the book Sister of the Road." Although the film's source, Sisters of the Road, by Dr. Ben Reitman, was promoted as an autobiographical "as told to" book when it was published in 1937, in No Regrets, the 1999 biography of Reitman by his daughter, Mecca Reitman Carpenter, the author wrote that Sisters of the Road was actually a novel based on her father's experiences as a doctor among hoboes and the poor. According Carpenter, her father, who specialized in gynecology, had many lovers, among them socialist Emma Goldman and other political activists, as well as many of the women he encountered in his medical profession.
At the time of the film's release, however, most critics and historians accepted the Reitman novel as factual. Several contemporary articles mentioned that the portrait of Thompson in the film differed significantly from the book, including a December 1972 Ms. article that stated that in the book Thompson was portrayed as a political agitator and an advocate for women's rights, seeking birth control, health care, shelter and legal aid for impoverished women during the Depression.
As noted in a April 26, 1972 Variety article, shortly before the film was released, Barbara Hershey changed her name to "Barbara Seagull," a name she publicly vowed to use as her professional name for all projects subsequent to Boxcar Bertha, but she resumed using the surname Hershey within a few years. Hershey and co-star David Carradine lived together for many years. The August 1972 issue Playboy included several pages of stills from their lovemaking scenes in the film, which, according to the couple in accompanying quotes in the Playboy article, were genuine. A July 27, 1972 Daily Variety article stated that newsstand sales of this Playboy issue were banned in Canada because of the explicit photographs.
Although several contemporary articles stated that Boxcar Bertha marked the directorial debut of Martin Scorsese, he had already directed several pictures, including the 1968 feature film Who's That Knocking at My Door? (see below) and Street Scenes, a 1970 documentary that did not have a commercial release. Scorsese also had worked as an assistant director and editor on the 1970 documentary Woodstock and had directed numerous short films. Scorsese had a minor role in the film as one of Bertha's customers at the brothel. Boxcar Bertha was one of the first film credits for associate producer Julie Corman, the wife of producer Roger Corman. She also produced Night Call Nurses (see below), which was released at the same time as Boxcar Bertha, June 1972.
Released in United States September 1996
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1972
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1972
Released in United States September 1996 (Shown in New York City (American Museum of the Moving Image) as part of program "Corman's Children" September 7-28, 1996.)