From time to time, Turner Classic Movies carries the 1932 film "Shanghai Express", regarded by many film historians as one of Marlene Dietrich's greatest performances, and while critics have considered it a good movie, they usually stop short of calling it a great one. In "Shanghai Express", from the Austro-American director Josef von Sternberg, a multi-national gathering of passengers on the Beijing (Peking) to Shanghai express train are shocked to find that one of their fellow passengers is a woman of highly questionable background, the notorious Shanghai Lily (Dietrich). This concerns them more than the fact that a civil war is going on that may lengthen the trip considerably. A British Army doctor, Donald Harvey (Clive Brook), boards the train, and it turns out he knew her as "Magdalena" before she became a famous "coaster", defined as "someone who lives by their wits along the China coast." In those pre-code days, the implication was clear, Lilly did not make her living dealing fan-tan or managing an opium den: she was a hooker, pure and simple. In case anyone missed the point, in one of her more memorable lines Dietrich says, "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily".
Anyway, Chinese rebels stop the train, and after questioning the passengers, Doctor Harvey is taken hostage. Will he survive, and what if any role will Lily play? Who is the sinister Eurasian businessman (Warner Oland), clearly up to no good? What about the mysterious Chinese woman on board (Anna May Wong), someone also shunned by her fellow passengers?
Fiction, yes. But in watching the movie I was struck by the thought that I recognized the story, not from fiction but from history. I checked my sources, and found that it did indeed mirror an actual historical incident, which von Sternberg obviously took as his inspiration for the film..
In the early spring of 1923, a large gang of bandits (not warlord rebels, as in the film) led by a bandit chieftain named Sun Meiyao, was operating on the borders of China's Eastern provinces of Jiangsu, Anhui and Shandong, along the tracks of the Tianjin-Pukou (Tientsin-Pukow) Railway. The deluxe train on this line was the Blue Express, which transported passengers in relative luxury between Beijing and Shanghai. At 2:50 am on the morning of May 6, the bandits made their big move: as the passengers slept, Sun's gang of about 600 men stopped the train and overpowered its guard of about 30 soldiers. The unarmed and defenseless passengers, about 30 foreigners of various nationalities and about 100 Chinese, now found themselves at the bandits' mercy.
The well-to-do and prominent among the foreign contingent included: J. B. Powell, editor and publisher of the English-language China Weekly Review; Leon Friedman, a Shanghai auto dealer; Chevalier Musso, a leading Shanghai attorney; two U.S. Army majors on leave from the Philippines; and a number of world tourists. Among the latter group was an American woman, Lucy Aldrich. Miss Aldrich would have been a prime catch, the mother lode for the bandits had they realized what they had. In addition to being a prominent socialite and collector of Asian art, she was the elder daughter of the late Rhode Island Senator Nelson Aldrich (grandfather of future U.S. Vice-President Nelson A. Rockefeller) and sister-in-law of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., head of Standard Oil of New York (Socony) and one of the world's richest men.
Prior to her departure from New York, Miss Aldrich went to her brother-in-law (who shared her interest in Asian art and culture) and asked what advice he might give her for traveling in China. Jokingly, he responded that should there be any difficulties, the nearest Socony agent would help her. The story went that when the bandits invaded her compartment, Miss Aldrich cried out, "Socony! Socony!" Unfortunately, there was no company representative on the train or within earshot. So Miss Aldrich was among those taken hostage. If the bandits had known the status and connections of this prisoner, Miss Aldrich's ordeal would probably have been more difficult, and certainly would have lasted longer.
After taking all the passengers from the train, the bandits began herding the hostages into the mountains, toward their stronghold. But after a few hours, frustrated that the women made such slow progress over the rough terrain, the bandits released the women. Or at least they tried: one woman who insisted on staying was a Mrs. Verea, wife of a Mexican businessman, who adamantly refused to leave her husband, despite the bandits' repeated attempts to get her to go.
So after her release on the second day, Miss Aldrich, abandoned in the mountains, began heading back. During an unguarded moment on route to the mountains, however, she had the presence of mind to bury her considerable quantity of jewelry in a remote spot, committing the location to memory, and after her return to Shanghai a Socony agent following her memorized instructions was able to retrieve the entire cache. Miss Aldrich eventually found her way back to civilization, none the worse for the experience, but now equipped with a story that earned her many a social invitation for years to come.
As for the rest of the passengers, the bandits first took them to their mountain lair, a fortification at the top of the mountain. Chinese troops besieged the fort, but this was ineffectual. The bandits sent word to the troops that unless all the army troops were withdrawn immediately, the hostages would be shot. They also forced one of the hostages to write a letter to the troops' commander, telling him the bandits were not bluffing, and any attempt at rescue could put the hostages in jeopardy. A few nights later, under cover of darkness, the bandits moved the hostages to another mountain, called "Calf Carrying Mountain". This was even more impregnable than the first, so steep that oxen could not climb it. Farmers would carry baby calves up the mountain to the flat, cultivated summit, where the oxen would spend their entire lives.
With pursuit impossible, the two sides settled down to a period of negotiations. The bandits, whose numbers had now grown to over 2,000 men, demanded five million Chinese dollars in ransom (Miss Aldrich alone might have brought that much). In addition, the bandits demanded they be taken into the army, with their chieftain Sun Meiyao changing his status to that of warlord general, and further, that their forces be stationed on the railway where they could continue to exact tribute from the railway and the traveling public as well.
The standoff lasted for six weeks. The compromise reached was that the bandits were taken into the army, but instead of the five million Chinese dollars, they accepted the equivalent of half a million US dollars, paid in hard Chinese silver dollars. (The eventual outcome was bad for the bandits: six months later, the Chinese governor of Shandong by a ruse succeeded in getting the bandits away from their rifles, after which he had practically the whole gang placed under arrest and duly executed. As proof, his commanding general sent each of the former captives a photograph of the several hundred bodies stacked up against the stone wall where they had been shot.)
All of the captives appear to have come through the ordeal with no permanent harm. One later said in an interview that everyone kept a sense of humor, which helped tremendously. The first two weeks were difficult, with little food and forced night marches over rough terrain wearing little except the sleepwear they had on when originally captured. After a time, however, they were able to beg or barter clothing from the bandits who had taken their possessions from the train. Most of this trading took place at night after the guards had gone to sleep.
Also, no one was able to retrieve their own clothing, so people made do with what they could get. For example, Mr. Friedman the auto dealer, a gentleman of considerable girth, was only able to secure the clothing of a Mexican who weighed 125 lbs. Mr. Musso, the Shanghai attorney, of even more heft than Mr. Friedman, found nothing that would fit him, and spent his entire captivity in what he had been wearing all along, a night shirt reaching barely to his knees. His fellow hostages began referring to him as the Roman senator, since he appeared to be dressed in a toga.
While they were the bandits' guests, the hostages received one raw egg per day, along with some tasteless cakes made of crushed gaoliang or millet seeds. Relief from this diet came from a Dr. Yerkes, an American missionary in a nearby valley who was able to use his connections among the local peasantry to smuggle in some food to the captives. These rations consisted of Chinese ham (taken from a part of the pig usually used commercially as a source of bristles). He also sent in some reading material for them—several copies of the New Testament. This prompted Mr. Friedman to moan in mock despair, "What's a good Jewish boy to do in these circumstances? We starve and they send us ham! We have nothing to read and they send us the New Testament!" But ham is food, and the New Testament is reading matter; and upon his release, Mr. Friedman sent Dr. Yerkes a generous contribution to help his mission.
After their release, the Chinese government whisked the victims in a palatial private train car to Shanghai, where the consular officials of their various countries turned out to welcome them like visiting royalty. In time, the Chinese government recompensed them for property stolen by the bandits, and gave each of the former hostages a grant of money calculated on a per diem of time spent in captivity. Like the aforementioned Lucy Aldrich, I have no doubt that they all spent the rest of their days regaling friends and relatives with travel experience stories that few others can match.
So the real "Shanghai Express" incident came to an end. While it
lacked the fallen "Shanghai Lily" and her reuniting with her lost love
Doctor Harvey, it does offer several other ingredients for a good
movie: the hostages' period of captivity was considerably longer, more
"55 Days at Peking" than "Shanghai Express"; the cast of hostages was
larger and more multi-national, which made it more epic; and like the
von Sternberg film, it had a happy ending for all but the
bandits/rebels. I also would have liked a subplot with the fiery Senora
Verea facing down the bandits with her determination to stand by her
man, until at last they conceded that her will was stronger than
theirs. The Friedman-Yerkes relationship had potential as a
heartwarming story of interdenominational brotherhood. And, if we were
remaking the film today, with different racial attitudes, how about Ms.
Aldrich on her lonely way back to civilization having a chaste (but
tempting) encounter with a helpful and handsome young Chinese farmer
who assists her on her way? Finally, with the Dietrich-Brooks romance
as a subplot, and the beautiful and feisty Anna May Wong as a patriotic
Chinese taking out the leader of the bad guys, a blending of the two
stories might have turned a good movie into a great one.
For further reading:
Aldrich, Lucy Truman. "A Weekend with Chinese Bandits," Atlantic Monthly, Nov 1923, p.672
Allman, Norwood F. Shanghai lawyer. New York, London, Whittlesey house, McGraw-Hill book company, 1943 [Allman was the American consul in Shanghai at the time of the hostage negotiations.]
Von Sternberg, Josef. Fun in a Chinese laundry. New York, Macmillan [c1965]