Many passengers on the Shanghai Express are more concerned that the notorious Shanghai Lil is on board than the fact that a civil war is going on that may make the trip take more than three days. The British Army doctor, Donald Harvey, knew Lil before she became a famous "coaster." A fellow passenger defines a coaster as "a woman who lives by her wits along the China coast." When Chinese guerillas stop the train, Dr. Harvey is selected as the hostage. Lil saves him, but can she make him believe that she really hasn't changed from the woman he loved five years before?
"It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily," purrs Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express. She certainly has her well-manicured hands full with more men than she can count in this exotic far-Eastern adventure. Among her fellow passengers on the Shanghai Express are her disillusioned former fiance, stalwart British medical corps officer Clive Brook; overfervent missionary Lawrence Grant; dope smuggler Gustav von Seyffertitz; and mysterious Eurasian businessman Warner Oland. As the train chugs through the more treacherous passages of war-torn China, Oland reveals himself as the leader of a rebel group, who plans to hold the passengers hostage to secure the release of his imprisoned followers. In Boule de Suif fashion, Dietrich, who is a notorious "Chinese coaster" but who has remained sexually aloof throughout the trip, gives herself to Oland to save the life of Brook, the man she truly loves.