Here is a movie which confuses me. It is at the same time brilliant and insightful as well as awkward and annoying. A paradox really.
Josef von Sternberg has a few movies on the list and I have already commented on “Der Blaue Engel” and “Docks of New York”. Both are very good movies, both aesthetically and story wise. For “Shanghai Express” he is working again with Marlene Dietrich. According to the book they had a thing going and it seems obvious that it was not her acting skills that brought them together. I have a bit of a problem with her. She was good in “Der Blaue Engel”, but that is about it. There was a magic to Sternbergs two previous movies which I feel is missing here in “Shanghai Express” and certainly I do not get a kick out watching Dietrich posing for 80 minutes even though Sternberg likely did.
The movie is highly stylized. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but here it gets to almost cartoon level. Shanghai Lily (Dietrich) and Captain Harvey (Clive Brook) ARE the luxury prostitute and the stiff, cold English officer to an extent that that is really all they are. Very one-dimensional. Their acting and posing seem staged as if they are conversing for the benefit of an audience and there is absolutely nothing natural about it. They are supposed to be the main characters, but I find it very difficult to conjure up any interest for these characters. If at least Harvey was funny in his sarcasm or Lily was sassy it might have saved it, but they are ice cold both of them. The last 20 minutes of the movie is the resolution of their love affair, but for me that was an uninteresting appendix.
The stylized cartoon properties goes for the supporting cast as well. They basically make up the remaining first class passengers on this train bound for Shanghai and are a cross section of the white people roaming war torn China with a half-blood warlord and a Chinese courtesan thrown in. All the characters are types: The indignated missionary, the French officer, the American gambler/opportunist, the German weirdo and the Victorian matron. And that is basically who they are.
In a better movie we would be introduced to such types, but in the course of the film learn that looks are deceiving and there is something different underneath. Sometimes the righteous people turn out to be the actual scumbags and the other way round. A good example of this is “the Stagecoach”. But not so in “Shanghai Express”. The characters in the group do not develop anything beyond their types. Okay, we learn that Shanghai Lily has decency and balls when it counts, but that was in the deck from the beginning. We also learn that the western looking half-blood is actually a warlord who despises foreigners, but he already indicates this sentiment early on. The surprise is not really a surprise.
So what does work for this picture?
Despite von Sternberg only went to China much later he did nail the culture clash between the Chinese and the western expats. In fact he nailed it so well that you can go to China today and see many of the same things acted out.
The Chinese appear servile and humble and defer to the westerners. The westerners in turn takes this as an accept of their supremacy and act like lords and masters representing a superior culture. But the Chinese are not stupid and they have a strong code of honor and resent being considered inferior. In fact to a large extent they see themselves as superior and often have only scorn for our dismissive attitude. However if the westerners want to be idiots then let them as long as the Chinese can exploit them in turn.
In the film the westerners in the first class car acts exactly in that way. This is colonial supremacy at its worst. The gambler (Eugene Pallette as Sam Salt) demonstrates this perfectly when he talks with the warlord (Warner Oland as Henry Chang) before he is known as the warlord. Who wants to be a Chinaman?
The Chinese Courtesan (Anna May Wong) is largely ignored as Chinese even though she ought to be every bit as interesting as Shanghai Lily and is actually the one who acts to kill the warlord.
The Warlord represents the Chinese scorn for the arrogance the westerners display and does not hide it when he appears as the warlord. The German weirdo is punished, not for trading opium, but for his arrogance on the train.
I just do not know if von Sternberg gives us the cultural clash intentionally or by accident by revealing his own disdain. He lets an entire platoon of Chinese soldiers get massacred, but none of the westerners are even interested. Intentional or because it just is not very interesting?
I have lived in China and met many expats and tried to deal with Chinese. I have met these elements in China. It is so easy for a westerner to fall into that trap because we just do not understand and because so much of what the Chinese do seem stupid to us. But it is extremely destructive to fall into that trap and often relationships are ruined because of that attitude. And to Chinese relationships are of paramount importance (look up the meaning of “Guanxi”).
In “Shanghai Express” the showdown in the warlords camp is the climax for me. I really liked this part. The rest of the movie I did not care much about.