Monday, April 25, 2011

Pith Helmets and the Central Plains War: Shanghai Express

The Notorious White Flower of China

The Movie
   Shanghai Express (1932, directed by Josef Von Sternberg) is quite a movie; an eventful railroad journey across a tumultuous China roiled by civil war, filmed on a studio lot.  An Oscar nominated film for picture and director, and an Oscar-winner for cinematography, with good reason.
   The opening scene begins with the boarding of the Shanghai Express, a steam train en route from Beijing to Shanghai.  Marlene Dietrich plays Shanghai Lily, a scarlet woman 'who makes a living by her wits along the China coast'.  Anna Mae Wong plays Hui Fei, another coaster; Clive Brook is Lily's love interest (and quintessential stiff-upper-lipper), Captain Harvey, one whose love she lost when she tested it too harshly years previously.  Other passengers on the train provide sympathy, snobbery and menace as the train rattles toward its final destination.

Pith Helmets:  Why
  Why pith helmets?  Because I like my movies to continue the way they began, and if I can't enjoy the romantic ending of a movie because the lead is wearing a ridiculous hat that appears two sizes too large and reminds me of Rick Moranis in Spaceballs, then I begin to ask questions like 'why!?' and 'is that even accurate?'.  So here it is.  Above right is a picture of the offending chapeau, worn by Clive Brook in the final scene.  (Incidentally, Clive Brook, while straight of nose and possessing a full head of hair, is possibly the least-compelling romantic lead I've seen in a movie in a while - what a grouch!) 

Pith Helmets:  When and How
Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia in pith
   According to Wikipedia, pith helmets (also known as safari helmets) were born around 1840 and used in the Sikh Wars in India as a sort of sun helmet.  The use of the helmets was, in general, limited to tropical countries.  'Pith' refers to the material the hats were originally made of; the pith is the central structural tissue of a plant.  The pith of a flowering bog plant from Southeast Asia, the sola, was most used in creation of the hats, useful because it was very lightweight. The hats were typically covered with white cloth material with a dark band.  After the British began to dye their helmets with tea to serve as a type of desert camouflage in the wars with the Zulu kingdom in South Africa, the standard color of the British pith helmet became beige.
   In later years the pith helmet was adapted for more modern settings, including use in World War I by several nations and eventually as the headgear of the British bobbies (called 'custodian helmets') - although here's where the pith helmet can get confused with another type of hat, the Pickelhaube (a Prussian spiked helmet).  These later versions of the pith helmet were more streamlined, lacking the loft and volume of previous versions, but having a double-brim.

The Central Plains War
   Shanghai Express is not specific in setting a time period, but China at the time prior to the release of the film was racked by a series of conflicts.  In 1930, the Kuomintang or Nationalist Part of China, was beset by infighting in a conflict that became known as the Central Plains War.  Over 300,000 people died in the civil war between Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai Shek and his former allies.  The movement of the bulk of Chinese forces away from Manchuria (Northeastern China) to battle on the plains indirectly led to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria prior to World War II.

 Links and Sources:
Pith helmet, Wikipedia
Aeschynomene aspera, Wikipedia
Custodian helmet, Wikipedia
Pickelhaube, Wikipedia
Filming Shanghai Express, TCM
Kuomintang, SchoolNet 
Central Plains War, Cultural China

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