Shanghai Express

Shanghai Express (1932) Director: Josef von Sternberg

In Shanghai Express, Marlene Dietrich delivers a highly memorable and seductive performance in her fourth of seven films with Josef von Sternberg. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Cinematography (winner). It outperformed the famous Grand Hotel at the box office and was also remade into two later films.

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The film takes place during the Chinese Civil War as several Western individuals board a train from Peking to Shanghai China that gets inspected once by government officials, and later hijacked by a revolutionary. The story is based on true events occurring in 1923 when a warlord and successfully ransomed 25 Westerners and 300 Chinese individuals. The Hays Office kept a close eye on the film for its portrayal of Western and Chinese politics. In the film, the revolutionary is Henry Chang who coldly remarks, “you’re in China now, where time and life have no value” as cattle are removed from the train tracks. Shanghai Lilly, a notorious escort in China also called the “notorious White Flower of China”, happens to meet her former lover Captain Donald Harvey, a medical doctor, after five years apart. The two realize their love for one another after five years, the Captain formerly left her out of petty jealousy. The other Western passengers despise her for her illicit prostitution.

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Chang ambushes the train at midnight hoping to use one of the westerners, Doctor Henry, as ransom for one of his revolutionary compatriots. He offers Shanghai Lilly to be his mistress in his palace but she refuses and Captain Henry punches him in the face. Chang then rapes Lilly’s associate Chinese woman. When Chang threatens to burn out Henry’s eyes, Shanghai Lilly strikes a deal to go away with him as his mistress, however her associate kills Chang, and they all flee, although Henry doesn’t forgive Lilly for choosing Chang, not knowing her decision to save him from torture. Eventually, they embrace in love at the close of the film.



Shanghai Express is a compelling film complete with excellent acting from Marlene Dietrich, an enticing plot, and wonderful cinematography. It should be viewed by all lovers of classic film at least once.

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