Shanghai Express

Shanghai Express is a 1932 American pre-Code film about a group of train passengers held hostage by a warlord during the Chinese Civil War. It was directed by Josef von Sternberg and stars Marlene Dietrich, Clive Brook, Anna May Wong and Warner Oland. The screenplay was written by Jules Furthman based on a 1931 short story by Harry Hervey. Shanghai Express was the fourth of seven films that Sternberg and Dietrich created together.


In 1931, China is embroiled in a civil war. Friends of British captain Donald "Doc" Harvey envy him because the fabulously notorious Shanghai Lily is a fellow passenger on the express train that he is taking from Peking to Shanghai. Because the name means nothing to him, they inform him that she is a "coaster" or "woman who lives by her wits along the China coast," in other words, a courtesan. On the journey, Harvey encounters Lily, who is his former lover Madeline. Five years earlier, she had played a trick on him to gauge his love for her, but it backfired, and he left her. She informs him frankly that in the interim, "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily." Lily clarifies that she still cares deeply for him, and it is apparent that his feelings also have not changed when she inadvertently sees a watch that she had given him with her photograph still in it.