Boxcar Bertha came before Scorsese’s breakthrough Mean Streets (1973), but it’s obvious even at this early stage that there was a keen eye and great talent coming from behind the camera.
The film is based on a book called Sister of the Road, by Dr Ben Reitman. It’s described as an autobiography of Bertha Thompson’s life but is, in fact, a work of fiction, albeit an inspiring one. However, the film is often described as bearing very little resemblance to the original story.
The action takes place in the depression era of 30s southern United States. The themes explored in the film are crime, violence and relationships. These themes are strong indicators of the type of pictures that Scorsese would continue to direct throughout the rest of his career, most notably his Taxi Driver (1976). Both films focus on a solitary character’s journey on the fringe of society, and both films climax in a shoot-out.
Making the most of his low budget, Scorsese begins by intercutting real footage of the depression as the credits roll, establishing the time period for the audience.
Boxcar Bertha (Barbra Hershey) starts her journey when her father is killed after crashing his plane. Left alone, Bertha has to fend for herself and starts to ride the rails using freight trains (or boxcars) and meets Big Bill Shelley, Rake Brown and Von Morton. Bertha’s most notable cohort is Big Bill Shelley (David Carradine), Hershey’s real-life partner at the time. This was a wise casting choice on as their off-screen romance helps lend both characters strong chemistry throughout the film, especially in the sex scenes.
Bill is a common labourer and union man, who wants to seek revenge on the rich and corrupt old owner of the railroad, Sartoris. Rake Brown is a gambling card-sharp who is no stranger to cheating his way through the games he plays. Morton is black and seems to feel compelled to look after Bertha as a sister, since he was her father’s mechanic.
Kind-hearted, Bertha luckily finds individuals who are willing to stick by her, and even love her, but she is also young and naive and never seems to understand the severity of the situations she is involved in– that is, until the story nears its finish. In a final confrontation with the rail tycoon, the gang’s untouchable status finally crumbles and Rake is shot in the back and killed. Bill shouts to Bertha to run, and although she manages to escape (by boxcar), both he and Von are captured and Bertha turns to a life of prostitution as she mourns her separation from Bill.
Wandering the streets after what appears to be months of living in a whore house, Bertha is enticed into a black club by the sound of Von’s harmonica playing. Not noticing all the other patrons of the premises, who are surprised and irritated that a young white woman has strolled into their drinking hole, Bertha walks up to Von for an emotional reunion which soon settles the other club members as they realise she means no harm.
Von leads Bertha to where Bill has been staying since his release, but they are unknowingly followed.
The brutal ending sees Bill nailed by the palms of his hands to a boxcar by men who were cheated by him earlier in the film. Despite Bertha’s good intentions and childlike naivety, the criminal activities they undertook, along with their harsh portrayal as good-for-nothings in the press, finally catches up with them.
Despite how it might seem from the ending, none of the gang is predisposed to violence or crime – even cheater Rake Brown is made fun of by the other three for carrying a gun but never using it – but they rile up the police and Bertha is implicated in the murder of a wealthy gambler. Word spreads about who she is travelling with, and all of them get sucked into a life of petty crime through their loyalty to one another.
More than anything this is a film about loyalty. Bertha doesn’t judge anyone she meets based on where they’re from and she treats all of her companions without discrimination. By the standards of the day the four of them are misfits (a woman, a black man, a gambler and a leftist) – but they find one another and stick by each other until the end.