When it opened 45 years ago yesterday, Boxcar Bertha (1972), starring Barbara Hershey as a seductive Depression-era Arkansas train robber outlaw and David Carradine as her messianic union agitator lover and partner in crime, definitely registered as more “a Roger Corman production” than “a Martin Scorsese picture.” But the fast and economical outlier vibe of the project brought out the best of both in their roles as mentoring mogul and first-time Hollywood director, despite any potential clash of narrative values between populist, hard-hitting entertainment and thoughtful thematic exploration. Both benefitted from the partnership, Scorsese more so, exuberating indulging his inner movie geek throughout the process. In his TCM.com blog on the $600,000, 24-day location shoot in and around Camden, AR, essayist Jeff Stafford observed: “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 theater. Like one of his idols, Alfred Hitchcock, Scorsese also puts in a brief cameo appearance, playing a customer in a whorehouse.”
He also notes that Hershey “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 16 years later in 1988, playing Mary Magdalene. 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 that was shot on a movie-inspired boxcar set and was much more explicit than the actual film.”
But intriguingly, beyond the formula elements of rebellion, sex, nudity and violence expected of Corman “exploitation” fare of the time, Martin Scorsese: A Biography author Vincent LoBrutto points to the film’s aspects of “religious parable” that are wildly unexpected, particularly in the above-mentioned climactic “crucifixion” death scene involving Carradine’s Bill Shelley character, which was present in the screenplay adaptation by Joyce H. and John William Corrington of Ben L. Reitman’s fictional book Sister of the Road: The Autobiography of Boxcar Bertha. He concludes: “Scorsese has often stated with artistic pride that for the crucifixion sequence in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) he used many of the same angles selected for Bill’s crucifixion in Boxcar Bertha. That sequence in The Last Temptation is comprised of 17 shots that demonstrate the dramatic power of a filmmaker at the height of his creative abilities; but in essence it remains loyal to the intent of the earlier film. Scorsese’s integrity as a film director is centered in his consistency of vision and commitment to thematic concerns. A filmmaker who can dramatize with the same conviction the visualization of Jesus dying for humanity’s sins in an exploitation movie and in a religious epic, has little to prove about his belief in art and spiritual matters.” However you approach it, Boxcar Bertha is one exciting ride on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.