CHINA EXPRESS (Goluboy ekspress) B+
aka: Blue Express
Russia (62 mi) 1929 d: Ilya Trauberg
It’s not often that you can see a film that advocates armed insurrection, but this is certainly one of them, the first feature film by Soviet filmmaker Ilya Trauberg who began as a film critic before venturing into making films. His documentary LENINGRAD TODAY (1927) caught the eye of Sergei Eisenstein who hired him as an assistant on his 1928 film OCTOBER (TEN DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD) commemorating the tenth anniversary of the October 1917 Revolution in which the Bolsheviks seized power, a film noted for using striking juxtapositions of symbols to comment on the events. Cinema was still in its infancy during the 20’s when the new Soviet state headed by Vladimir Lenin understood the medium could be used to communicate with the masses, a position later copied by Joseph Stalin. The State Film Institute in Moscow, aka VGIK, was established in 1919 to train a new generation of filmmakers, the oldest film school anywhere in the world, where Bolshevik Newsreels by Dziga Vertov were the major form of earliest Soviet cinema, but they also created agit-prop films where they attempted to educate the populace about the goals of Communism, using young emerging filmmakers to send the message. Lev Kuleshov taught a promising group of film students in the early 20’s, including Vsevolod Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein, who then began their own filmmaking careers in the middle 20’s, where Eisenstein’s BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (1925) brought Russia international acclaim, heralding a new style of Soviet cinema, heavily propagandistic, preaching the party line about the virtues of a worker state, using shorter scenes, quick cuts, and a rapid-fire editing technique to produce a rhythmic style of accumulating dramatic tension, paying particular attention to close-ups in what became known as Soviet montage. To illustrate the burgeoning industry, in 1923 the Soviets released just 38 feature films, but by 1928 that figure was up to 109. As it turns out, the greatest creative achievements of the Silent era in Soviet cinema, where noted directors Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Dovzhenko, and Vertov produced their most acclaimed works, came from a brief period of film prosperity from the mid 20’s to the end of the decade.
While CHINA EXPRESS is blatant propaganda, very much in the cutting edge style of early Soviet cinema, it begins with tugging sentiment, where the happy greeting of two Chinese brothers quickly turns to sorrow with the realization that their sister has been sold into servitude to a corrupt capitalist merchant who hideously treats her as his own property. Both mired in poverty, neither can lift a finger to help the girl, who is forced to endure the cruel and degrading treatment of her new owner. This sets the stage, and the train, in motion, becoming one of the earliest unstoppable train movies, like Buster Keaton’s THE GENERAL (1926), where nearly all the action takes place on the train, ultimately a coming of consciousness picture where people slowly rally to her defense, not just a young girl, but fighting for the plight of all exploited workers across the nation. To make things easily understood, the coach fare is divided by social class, where first class contains the white European dignitaries and the wealthy Chinese aristocrats, second class contains the professionals and merchants, while third class are the poor and slaving workers. Like POTEMKIN, there is an incendiary spark that produces instant outrage, when a pair of inebriated Englishmen decide to brutally molest the Chinese girl, threatening her with rape until her brother intervenes and kills one of the white men, which sends a shock wave into each coach. The brother along with his rescued sister return to the protection of his Chinese comrades in third class, while first class erupts in enraged fury, immediately sending in armed troops to apprehend the offender. But the Chinese passengers, a stand-in for the Russian masses, stick up for one another and rather than be shot down like dogs, decide to arm themselves with guns and ammunition from a munitions shipment on the train. This is one of the few films you’ll ever see that encourages Asian minorities to arm themselves against the corrupt power of the white ruling class, who are guided by their deplorably racist intentions.
Within the train itself, the spirit of revolution is in the air, with both sides armed to the teeth with plenty of innocent bystanders who just happen to be there. The first wave of militia sent in are shot, so the imperialists and their bought-and-paid-for Chinese associates send an entire army to attack the coach class car which holds its position and refuses to be bullied by armed oppressors defending imperious white men who think they can rape Chinese girls with impunity. With fighting inside and outside the train, with more offensives to gain control of the engine, and still more battles going on outside to control the railway switches, the train is a bloody battleground of the political ideologies of good and evil. Featuring a steady stream of close-ups and nearly non-stop action, the film has been citied as the main inspiration of Josef von Sternberg’s SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932), a film that helped transform a not-very-successful German actress into an international sex goddess, Marlene Dietrich as the world-weary courtesan Shanghai Lily, known in the film as the “White Flower of the Chinese coast.” CHINA EXPRESS is hardly subtle, but it is notable for staging a worker’s revolt on a speeding, out of control train, where the train itself becomes synonymous with the fiery, yet unstoppable revolutionary movement surging across the lands of Mother Russia. It’s a bit ironic, as the Chinese are depicted as a metaphor for the Russian people in the film, but seen some 80 years afterwards, the Russian Revolution fizzled out with glasnost and the fall of the Soviet Union in December 1991, unable to meet the needs of the extended empire, where the ideology of Communism never took root in the hearts and minds of its population, leading to severe economic stagnation, where the Soviet Union disintegrated into fifteen fiercely nationalistic separate countries that couldn’t wait to kick the Russians out. On the other hand, the Chinese Communist Party remains the founding and current ruling party of The People’s Republic of China, but has integrated capitalist measures into their overall Marxist social strategies, heading one of the strongest economies in the world, and by any measure remains one of the world powers. If only they’d allow unfettered Internet access and expressions of dissent, perhaps the world would be a better place, but as is, the revolution remains a work in progress.