Boxcar Bertha and the Allure of the Outlaw

What makes her dangerous is her beauty, her wholesome smile. It is a careless, lank haired, depression-era beauty. It is a beauty of subtle observation, of playfulness. It is the beauty of the outsider, peering in. The beauty of freedom. She can evoke pity or masculine protection from her victims. One minute she is a girl in a floral dress, stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire, and the next, she is facing you, gun drawn. But she is also a girl of the 1970s, a portrait of the dissatisfaction of an era. She is Bertha Thompson, the titular character of 1972’s Boxcar Bertha, a low-budget Roger Corman production, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Barbara Hershey and David Carradine, that capitalized on a spate of outlaw imagery that characterized a new kind of filmmaking. 

Bertha’s story begins with her father’s death. As he is crop dusting for a rich landowner, he becomes aware of something wrong with his plane. Against his protests, he is told to continue his work and the plane crashes. It is an early indication of the recklessness of the rich and their thinly disguised hatred for the working class, a hatred that marks the film. Bertha begins to ride the rails in the Depression-era American South. As she does, she observes the destitution, the truth, and the pain of her times. It is along this journey that she falls in love with Big Bill Shelly, a labor organizer played by Carradine, and they begin robbing the trains, a symbol encompassing the cruel and immoral rich.

Bill is carried through the Depression on his ideals. They drive him. His moral compass is the moral compass of the folk hero outlaw. He has seen men beaten for attempting to unionize, homes burned in retaliation. He has seen people condone murder for the sake of profit, all to uphold a system that is failing. It is with this knowledge that Bill and Bertha begin to turn the tables on the rich. They bring to them the fear of violent retribution that the poor have always felt, they show them what it is like to feel powerless while your life is being toyed with. Robbing trains alongside Bertha and their misfit gang becomes his kind of justice, his way of fighting that system, and in true folk hero form, he sends the money to his labor union as proof of his dedication to a larger cause. 

Boxcar Bertha, while set during The Great Depression, was made in an era punctuated by an emerging skepticism of formerly revered cultural and social institutions. The Vietnam War was an ongoing catastrophe with no end in sight and protests of all kinds led by activists that sought to reimagine the world had begun to turn violent at the hands of police and soldiers. The seemingly endless barrage of coverage of these events, the war and the brutalization of protesters at places like Kent State University, fueled this disdain. No longer would these institutions command the unyielding respect and support that they had garnered in previous decades and from previous generations. It was also during this time that the image of the outlaw became a pervasive symbol within American culture. With films such as the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967) as well as more contemporary stories, such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), it is the outsider, the antihero, that is celebrated. With these films, the outlaw again became a symbol of the righteousness of fighting against these antiquated and violent systems. Their refusal to live by what were being recognized as corrupt systems reinvigorated an era as well as the art of filmmaking. Embodying the frustrations of an era, the outlaw proclaimed the dissatisfaction that many felt towards those in power, serving as a kind of balm, a momentary catharsis in a tumultuous world. Bertha, and her film, are an outgrowth of the preoccupations, fears, and anxieties so particular to American life in the 1970s, as much as it is concerned with the 1930s.

By the end of Boxcar Bertha, Bill, previously in hiding, is located by railroad detectives. He is then beaten and crucified on a boxcar. The pessimism of the 1970s wins with the death of Bill. It is at this moment that idealism, in the form of Bill, is murdered. Bertha is left alone. She will no longer find a home in another person, a corrupt system saw to that, has seen to her enforced loneliness. She has been punished for her crimes in sorrow. She has been left to wander  the country much as she did before, but she is no longer the young, buoyant, joyful girl. She has been hardened by the world, forced to see its ugliness, forced to see the ruthless ugliness of people. She has been marked by the cynicism of an era.