50 Movies for 50 States: Week 4 – Arkansas, Film – Boxcar Bertha

The United States has been well represented in the world of cinema. Still, while most people are familiar with Woody Allen’s New York, Tarantino’s Los Angeles or John Water’s Baltimore, Maryland, what about the not-so-familiar cracks and corners of the country?  Why can’t we have a crime thriller set in Amish country, a steamy psychological drama take place in Baton Rouge or a gross-out comedy with Rhode Island as its backdrop?

Well, we can. To prove it, I’m going from Alabama to Wyoming — each week choosing one film to represent each of the 50 U.S. states. The only criteria is that each movie is something I’ve never seen before. That should eliminate some of the more obvious choices, good films as they may be, allowing me to bring to the forefront some more obscure choices, oddities and forgotten classics alike.

Time for a road trip across the good ol’ U.S.A., one movie at a time.

Week 4 – Arkansas

Boxcar Bertha (1972), director Martin Scorsese, writers Ben L. Reitman (book), Joyce Hooper Corrington, John William Corrington, with Barbara Hershey, David Carradine

Of all the major directors that came out of the 1970s, Martin Scorsese probably endured the longest. When you look at his filmography, it’s easy to understand why. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Scorsese was never afraid to balance mainstream movies with pet projects. For every The Last Temptation of Christ or Raging Bull, Marty makes an After Hours or Cape Fear. Yet, even when Scorsese decides to slum it by making a — god forbid — entertaining movie that the majority of people can enjoy, it’s usually pretty impossible for him not to leave his imprint.

That’s why, while watching 1972’s Boxcar Bertha — Scorsese’s second feature length film based on the supposed real-life exploits of Depression-era hobo heroine Bertha Thompson — I found myself repeatedly looking for traces of the director’s imprint. Maybe a person with more training in film theory would have had an easier time singling out various Scorseseisms, but either they weren’t there or I just wasn’t seeing them. Regardless of its place in Scorsese’s curriculum vitae, Boxcar Bertha is an entertaining piece of exploitation cinema that — like most Roger Corman productions — has a little something for everyone.

A fresh-faced Barbara Hershey — playing off her real-life image as a 1960s flower child — stars as Bertha, a barefoot hillbilly-type who runs away from home after father is killed in an airplane accident. Bertha makes her way across the South in the boxcar of a locomotive, earning her nickname. She meets a variety of seedy characters — Rake Brown (Barry Primus), a Yankee con artist; Von Morton (Bernie Casey), a black railroad worker; and Bill Shelly, a union organizer played by Hershey’s real life husband, David Carradine. On the run from a bigoted southern sheriff, his cronies and a group of corrupt railroad moguls, Bertha and her compadres turn to crime to make ends meet, at which point the film becomes a cheap B-grade Bonnie & Clyde rip-off. The plot twist occurs when the group wind up crossing paths with the mob, leading to a spectacularly bloody finale.

At least one review of this film states that Scorsese’s directorial influence in Bertha turns what would be a forgettable piece of 1970s trash cinema into something worthwhile. I found that statement kind of a stretch, although I did catch a few unique camera angles and shots that were probably the result of Scorcese’s influence. It is the ending of the film that is particularly noteworthy and most likely the result of the director’s touch. Warning: Spoilers follow below the dotted line.

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When the mobsters catch up with Bertha and her crew, they proceed to nail Bill to the side of the train in a crucifixion-type pose. The story here, according to Peter Biskind’s book “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” is that it was on the set of Boxcar Bertha that Hershey presented Scorcese with a copy of the book, The Last Temptation of Christ. No doubt Scorcese had Jesus on the mind when he got around to filming the end of Bertha. It’s just too bad the whole crucifixion pose seems a bit forced. If the implication is Bill was some kind of Christ-figure — I don’t see it. I usually always hate the Christ metaphor period, but if you’re going to do it, you have to go all out because there’s nothing subtle about that kind of imagery. What I’m saying is that, if you’re going to nail a character to the cross, at least have them turn some water into wine or some loaves into fishes. Bill does neither of these things. He just shows up, has sex with Bertha and doesn’t do much else of consequence.

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Most people tend to ignore this film in Scorsese’s body of work, moving right along to his follow-up to Boxcar Bertha, Mean Streets. I understand why, as Bertha is a highly flawed film. As far as being historically accurate, it fails as well. One scene in particular has Bertha wearing a waist chain and nothing else — a fashion accessory that seemed totally out of place.

So, it helps to not analyze this as a Scorsese film and more of an semi-entertaining piece of 1970s exploitation schlock. Like I said before, this movie’s got a little something for everyone thanks to producer Corman, whose primary concern seemed to be how much nudity he could get away with throwing into the film.

Speaking of nudity, there’s plenty of it here, thanks to the inhibitions of Ms. Hershey. It’s not sexy though. It would have been a whole lot sexier had they just teased you — a shot of her upper leg here, a little well-placed cleavage there.

How about violence? You like bloody gunfights? The ending of the film won’t let you down.

Meanwhile, Berney Casey’s appearance caters to the blaxploitation crowd, in addition to the foils generally being racist white folk. The bigots get their comeuppance in the end, which at the time probably had the desired effect of getting the audience stand up in their seats and cheer when the film played to black inner-city audiences.

Still, with all these elements, something doesn’t gel. It’s like a huge Chinese buffet. You can help yourself to some garlic shrimp, chicken wings and sushi, and while it may cure your hunger pangs, it’s not pretty, even less so when it’s coming out. You’re better off sticking to one type of cuisine and just doing it well. That’s Boxcar Bertha in a nutshell. It wants to be an action film, then it wants to be a biopic, then it wants to dabble in sexploitation. It’s just too much and leaves you feeling kind of nauseous.

The choice to film in Arkansas works well, doubling for various locations across the deep south. I was under the impression, prior to watching this movie, that the entire film was set in Arkansas. Apparently that is not the case. It begins in Kansas and winds up in Louisiana. So I screwed up. Sorry Arkansas. Problem is, there aren’t a lot of movies that take place in Arkansas. The classic John Wayne western, True Grit, is supposed to take place in Arkansas but was actually filmed in Colorado (How the two locations could be mistaken for each other is anyone’s guess.)  Here’s a better choice, Billy Bob Thorton’s Sling Blade. Thorton is an Arkansas native and most of Sling Blade was filmed in Benton, Arkansas.

Next week is California, which gets a two-fer since it’s so damn big. We’ll be reviewing two movies from sunny Cali over the course of the next two weeks. See you then.

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