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Based on "Sister of the Road," the fictionalized autobiography of radical and transient Bertha Thompson as written by physician Dr. Ben L. Reitman, 'Boxcar' Bertha Thompson, a woman labor organizer in Arkansas during the violence-filled Depression of the early '30's meets up with rabble-rousing union man 'Big' Bill Shelly and they team up to fight the corrupt railroad establishment and she is eventually sucked into a life of crime with him. Written by
Boxcar Bertha was based on the life of times of Bertha Thompson, during the depression era in the 1930s. After her pilot father is killed right before her eyes in a plane-crash, Bertha leaves the family farm, unable to support herself alone. Bertha takes to the road, and soon meets-up with Big Bill Shelly. Bill is a union organizer, who's determined to exact justice from corrupt railroad barons. Bertha and Bill fall in love, and travel together via hopping trains across the south. The two turn to criminal activities, to survive.
Barbara Hershey gives a light-hearted, yet also poignant performance as Bertha. David Carradine conveys the conviction and passion, evident in Big Bill Shelly. His on-screen chemistry with Barbara Hershey, is palpable. Bernie Casey gives a strong, if understated performance as Bill's partner-in-crime, Von Morton. The morality angle of this film, like many made in the 70s, is ambiguous. The viewer knows that the characters clearly commit criminal acts. Yet there's also a sense of righteousness in their lawlessness, due to their quest to overthrow the cruel railroad men.
This is one of the more interesting 70s nostalgia films, and one of the very few to revolve around a strong female character. It is a bit too slow in spots, and could've used more exciting get-a-way scenes. But it makes-up for these minor flaws, by having characters with more emotional depth, than the usual crime drama. Boxcar Bertha is a fine film, that works very well overall.
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