I Saw A Film!
I’m not enough of a film aficionado to know that this was a Scorsese project (his second feature), and so I watched it without reverence, nor much in the way of expectation of enjoyment. Boxcar Bertha is a solid story about the creation of unions and the corporate power structure set up in the time of the Great Depression. Kind of. A story, never more relevant, as the grand-children of the people who fought for labor rights have wholesale myopia, and haven’t a clue about the horrors and efforts, blood, sweat and tears that went into forcing American corporations to treat people better than slaves. It gets said all the time but I’ll drop a few tidbits just to set the stage: corporations fought for child labor, they fought against minimum wages (they preferred to chince their own pay rates with underprivileged people), there was no such thing as a weekend, or a paid holiday or a forty hour work week–Scrooge was the norm.
Well now that I got you all pumped up we can talk about this film. I selected this film basically for a shot at seeing David and father John Carradine working together, as well as lovely young star Barbara Hershey. Of course it’s a period piece, but like much of rural America (esp. in 1972) forty years hadn’t touched much past the cars. What we have are depressed people trying hard to get into a situation where their lives are worth living. The railroad mistreats its people and our crew of malcontents decide to exact some revenge on the careless owners. This is hard to do as the wealthy have always had the law on their side, and can afford storm troopers who fight and die for them. In many ways old corporation heads (some would say modern ones too) resemble feudal lords (the sorts of things no one in America is supposed to respect–until you start producing feudal lords and watch people lose their minds in support of them). It doesn’t take long for our crew of friends to resemble a Bonnie and Clyde gang, despite the higher purpose of trying to aid the working poor, and while the finale feels like the prelude to Taxi Driver and includes a crude crucifixion, overall it is a solid representation of the pressures and pains the era no doubt exercised on regular folks who were our grand and great-grand parents. There is some hand-wringing over the crimes, but the necessity is clear. Bertha had already lost her dad in a crop dusting accident forced by greedy economic circumstances, and really didn’t have much of an opportunity otherwise. The griminess of depression era America really comes through in this tale. Which is part and parcel to the cheapness and exploitation of the era genre–Corman produced it, feature on the cheap.
While it is supposedly based on a “true story”, the book is a fictionalized production based loosely on the happenings recounted by the real Boxcar Bertha. There’s a great part for Victor Argo who plays one of the corporate heavies sent to do in our heroes. He was also really good in Ghost Dog, a mug you don’t forget. Old John the father, plays the railroad baddie, a careless tycoon confronted by the guns of our gang of righteous labor warriors now out for revenge. I’ll warn you that it doesn’t go well. Much like the old Bonnie and Clyde story we’ve gotten too much of (and much of it bullshit) Clyde Barrow was out for revenge against a penal system that mistreated him (at least according to some sources) and much of this film has the feel of revenge. I should also mention that the cops are portrayed well as basically racist monsters whose sole purpose seems to be to inflict as much pain and suffering on poor people as possible. Like I said the police have long been the protection for moneyed interests despite the higher ideology, especially historically. In the old days most crimes were “solved” by grabbing a town’s undesirable and just pinning it on him.
This runs free on Prime and while it’s not quite the film you want to use to rattle the cages of the spoiled descendants of people who were truly oppressed like peasants (social studies?) – it’s not a bad example of a story of righteous criminality for an ethics discussion. Come for the discussion, stay for the fun of this crew of actors.