Shanghai Express (1932)

This past Christmas vacation, I saw The Shanghai Express in Basel; I believe the date was 12/31/08. I found the movie very interesting.

Spoiler alert: I discuss the movie below.

The movie is set on the Shanghai Express, a train going from Beijing to Shanghai. Early in the movie, we’re introduced to three other passengers (among others) on the train:

  • Shanghai Lily, played by Marlene Dietrich, a notorious courtesan.
  • Captain Harvey, Lily’s estranged old flame, whom she still secretly loves. Five years ago, Lily tried to make him jealous with some ill-conceived scheme, but her ploy backfired and he no longer trusts her.
  • Reverend Mr. Carmichael, a theologian who takes an immediate dislike to Shanghai Lily and her travelling companion Hui Fei, because they’re women of ill-repute.

There are the beginnings of a rapprochement between Lily and Harvey.
But this is derailed (pun intended) when a rebel warlord “Chang” hijacks the train. He makes a “bargain” with Lily: she must agree to become his mistress, otherwise he will burn out the eyes of Captain Harvey with a hot iron. Lily agrees to the arrangement. It is a secret: nobody else knows why she agrees to it.

Chang is ultimately dispatched, stabbed in the back by Hui Fei. But Captain Harvey now regards Lily with renewed distrust, because although he knows she had agreed to become Chang’s mistress, he doesn’t know why. He doesn’t realize that his eyesight was at stake!

Mr. Carmichael pays Lily a visit, and insists that she tell him why she had agreed to become Chang’s mistress. Lily reveals her secret to Carmichael, on the condition that he tell no one else, especially not Harvey. Carmichael is moved by Lily’s self-sacrifice, and now wants to know why she doesn’t reveal her secret to Harvey. It seems like the obvious thing to do. If only Harvey knew Lily’s secret, then he would forgive her, and everybody would be happy!

But Lily has a very good reason for her secrecy. She tells Carmichael that she wanted Harvey to love her on faith; if he were to reconcile with her based only on knowledge instead, then his love wouldn’t really be worthwhile. Lily wants Harvey’s trust. Carmichael, formerly Lily’s adversary, now becomes her ally; and he makes a very interesting comparison to religious belief, saying the following memorable line:

Love without faith, like religion without faith, doesn’t amount to very much.

The analogy in religious belief is this. If God really exists, then why doesn’t he work some amazing miracle to demonstrate his existence to the world, thereby settling the matter? Why not move the stars in the sky so that they spell “HELLO WORLD! FROM, GOD LOL”? I think Carmichael would say it’s because God wants faith, not knowledge.

Note that the mainstream version of Christianity that we’re familiar with emphasizes belief rather than knowledge. But there was once a rival variant (Carmichael would call it a heresy) called Gnosticism, in which knowledge rather than faith was key (gnosis = knowledge). With Gnosticism, you can have salvation only if you know certain secrets. But only specially chosen people have access to this secret knowledge, which is passed down from initiate to initiate, like a secret society. I think that this has a strong New Age flavor!

If Carmichael had been a Gnostic mystic rather than a mainstream Christian theologian, he might instead have said:

Love without faith, like religion without knowledge, doesn’t amount to very much.

The knowledge vs. faith theme seems strongly related to the old question of reconciling science and religion. A very interesting book I read recently (highly recommended), written by a physicist at the University of Delaware (and who went to graduate school at Princeton), poses the question as materialism versus faith, rather than science versus faith.


As an aside, Shanghai Lily’s real name was Magdalen. This is very most likely a reference to Mary Magdaelene, who’s traditionally considered to be a woman of ill-repute (although according to the Wikipedia entry she’s never actually called a prostitute or adulteress in the New Testament), and who became one of the first Christians. A fallen woman who redeems herself. The parallel to Shanghai Lily seems convincing.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great analysis of this very interesting movie. I recommend seeing it to anyone who hasn’t yet.

  2. Thanks! Yes, I’d recommend it, too!


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