I use hands to help my fellow man / I use hands to help with what I can / But when I face an unjust injury / Then I change my hand into FIST OF FURY

Emperor of the North

EMPEROR OF THE NORTH (a.k.a. EMPEROR OF THE NORTH POLE) is a great 1973 tramp epic, a Depression-era tall tale of a battle between the champions of two rival kingdoms: a legend of the homeless counterculture pitted against the meanest, most heartless bastard among those lucky enough to have a job working the railroad. A-No.-1 (Lee motherfuckin Marvin [PAINT YOUR WAGON] in his followup to PRIME CUT) is a smart, experienced “bull” intent on riding the No. 19 all the way to Portland, Oregon. Shack (Ernest Borgnine, THE SPLIT) is the cruel sonofabitch conductor who takes that shit way too personally.

The opening scene sets the stakes high. Under a somewhat amusing Marty Robbins theme tune that personifies trains, the Shack chases down some poor guy trying to ride his rails and whacks him on the skull with a big metal mallet, like he’s Vinnie Jones in THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN. We have to hear the man’s screams as he falls and tumbles beneath the wheels and is left on the tracks separated into two pieces. Horrible.

So we know this isn’t a game when A-No.-1, carrying around a live chicken and using it as a club to beat off would-be thieves, deftly sneaks into a cattle car but has his location given away by a younger guy played by Keith Carradine (BOBBY Z), a weasely dick who keeps referring to himself as “ol’ Cigaret” as if remembering himself fondly. Trying to act-as-if himself into legend status.

In 2018 we have an ever-growing homelessness problem. I’ve watched the tent cities and sidewalk encampments get bigger and more common in my city, seemingly at the same rate that buildings are wrecked and replaced with condos for potential 22 year old tech people. I don’t know if there’s any national culture of homeless people – I guess maybe we’d have read about it. But EMPEROR OF THE NORTH portrays a time when the extreme poverty of the Depression led to survival methods and traditions that became a way of life that men like A-No.-1 could master and teach to the up-and-comers. They followed rules, built communities, learned the dangerous trades of train-hopping and thievery, created codes for communication, even titles like emperor (though that’s not what A-No.-1 is or strives to be).

So the movie shows some of this underworld, and their ways of betting on and making official A-No.-1’s intention to best The Shack and his shack diesel shack fu. But to my surprise there’s another another world beneath the one you live in that’s just a sugar-coated topping: that of the railroad workers who recognize The Shack is a crazy asshole – he scares and mistreats them too – and have a whole gambling racket and dream of somebody getting past him some day. (But out of honesty or Shack-fear they don’t help A-No.-1 get away with it. They genuinely try to catch him.)

It’s a hell of a journey and battle. There’s a ton of footage that’s clearly the real actors walking on moving trains, and none that looks fake. There’s danger of train crashes, ways of hiding, dirty tricks played by The Shack. They come off the train and catch up other ways and get back on. There’s an intense sequence where Shack stops the train on a bridge and the crew goes around and checks for stowaways. Cigaret is forced to climb onto and under the bridge to get away. He finds A-No.-1 in a ravine with his legs kicked up on some junk, casually continuing a conversation from earlier like nothing happened.

A young Sid Haig can be spotted in a community of hobos they visit. He had also been in POINT BLANK with Marvin. He actually looks kinda handsome in this movie.

Shit does get ugly. Some sympathetic members of the train crew end up fucked up bad in a crash. Shack doesn’t give a shit. You could take this event as a sign that A-No.-1 isn’t as honorable as you’d like to think, since his actions have contributed to this mess. Or you could take it as harsh, divine punishment for complicity in an unjust system. In the end, A-No.-1 does prove himself more honorable than Shack.

One kinda funny touch is how long during the climactic fight in an empty car a fire ax is in plain view. You keep being more and more amazed that nobody has decided to use it yet.

This is a great role for Marvin because it requires his usual grit, grouchiness and blunt cynicism, but also a bit of his CAT BALLOU comedic goofiness, and he has to be kind of lovable in ill-fitting suits. But most importantly he’s easy to buy as this guy who has experience and know-how about each and every damn thing that could come along. What to do if trapped inside a car. What to do if a guy drags a big metal dildo on a rope beneath the train so it will bounce around and smash against you. How to take advantage of a baptism. How to get a train to crash. When he starts gathering up empty, discarded buckets from a trash pile you just have to watch him doing it, and Cigaret watching him doing it, and then joining in, long before it can be revealed what he intends to do with them.

And Borgnine is arguably even better. You believe him as a heartless, sadistic asshole, one of these guys who gets too wrapped up in his occupation and uses it as an excuse to dehumanize people. It’s my job to keep people from getting a free ride, therefore I can extinguish human life. They’re just bums anyway. Consider that there’s not even some peaceful means he tries first before trying to kill people. He just swats them off like bugs.

But also he has this amazing vulnerable moment when he’s walking around the train looking for freight-hoppers, and a bunch of tramps are on the sidelines yelling stuff at him, basically heckling him. And Borgnine has this incredibly authentic look in his eyes that’s not reacting to these people in anger, but clearly aware of them. Making an effort not to give them what they’re looking for. And kind of scared.

The title EMPEROR OF THE NORTH POLE comes from a common hobo joke – the idea is that these guys are fighting over something essentially worthless, like being the ruler of a frozen unpopulated land. But after its initial release they apparently believed people were mistaking it for a Christmas movie, so they shortened it, and now it doesn’t really make any sense. Like WHEELS ON MEALS.

Here’s something kind of amazing: a dude who made his own custom model of Lee Marvin as A-No.-1.

Director Robert Aldrich (THE DIRTY DOZEN) did this one the year before he did THE LONGEST YARD. It’s classier than that one. Screenwriter Christopher Knopf was one of the writers of 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH, but mostly he wrote cowboy shows (The Restless Gun, Wanted: Dead or Alive, The Rifleman, The Texan, Zane Grey Theater, Cimarron Strip, etc.). The script was unofficially based on books by “King of the Hoboes” Leon Ray Livingston and Jack London, who travelled together and used the names A-No.-1 and Cigaret, respectively. Which is surprising because I would not think this Cigaret would go on to write famous books about dogs and adventure. Maybe getting so thoroughly schooled by the best made him straighten up his act.

The real A-No.-1 was a real Emperor of the North Pole – he’s credited with perfecting the hobo symbol system and writing twelve books about the life. He wasn’t actually poor, he just liked living on the road. He was so legendary that people would often pretend to be him, so he took to carrying a scrapbook autographed by Taft and Roosevelt, copies of his books and two fifty dollar bills as proof of his identity.

For London it was activism – he was a member of Kelly’s Army, a group of unemployed “stiffs” (many of them former railroad workers) headed for Washington as a protest, following the lead of a group called Coxey’s Army. According to Wikipedia, “The purpose of the march was to protest the unemployment caused by the Panic of 1893 and to lobby for the government to create jobs which would involve building roads and other public works improvements, with workers paid in paper currency which would expand the currency in circulation, consistent with populist ideology.”

I’m not trying to say EMPEROR OF THE NORTH is timely, or that it is necessary for us to watch to understand the near future and the skills we’ll have to develop to survive. But it’s a hell of a story in a fascinating world and it has two incredible actors having a grimace-off, a showdown, all but banging their I-imagine-three-times-thicker-than-the-average-human skulls against each other to establish dominance. I haven’t seen another movie like it. I bet you would love it.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 2nd, 2018 at 10:07 am and is filed under Action, Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

29 Responses to “Emperor of the North”

  1. I appreciate that Borgnine subtlety lets you know he’s not just a hardass authority figure in need of being taken down a peg, he’s a homicidal maniac who is clearly doing this job so he has a thin veneer of legitimacy for his murderous rage. He an rapacious capitalism make a great match, and neither one is going to ask too many questions about the other as long as they both get what they want. It’s a great villain character, very fitting for such a brutal, nasty movie.*

    Also: supposedly Lance Henriksen in in there somewhere (uncredited) as a railroad worker. I’ve seen the movie twice and never been able to pick him out, but that’s another feather in its hat.

    *Not that the cheery, whimsical score seems to realize it. If there’s a reason this one isn’t remembered as a classic today, that’s probably it.

  2. The German title of this is A TRAIN FOR TWO SCOUNDRELS (Ein Zug für zwei Halunken), which of course made me think it’s a more light hearted comedy, until the first dead hobo appeared. Which of course wasn’t that long.

    Still, it’s a great movie about a few assholes, who really go to extreme length to justify their status as assholes. And the train climbing scenes are breathtaking! If I remember right, there are several shots that show that there are real stuntmen climbing and hanging UNDERNEATH real trains! I hope they were paid well!

  3. Darryll Doucette

    May 2nd, 2018 at 11:23 am

    One of my all time favourite films. I’ve been fascinated with hobo culture for years. wish there were more hobo movies.

  4. LOVE this movie. There’s a fantastic Twilight Time Blu-Ray edition:

    Emperor of the North (Blu-ray)

    Starring Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Keith Carradine, Charles Tyner, Harry Caesar, Malcolm Atterbury and Simon Oakland. Available now only from Twilight Time Movies on Blu-ray disc. Limited to 3000 copies - buy yours today before they are out of stock!

  5. I come from a railroad family, but really know nothing about what they did or what it was like. My great grandfather worked for the railroad during the Depression, which is what kept them from starving. His father-in-law was a railroad detective. This was all in the Utah/Wyoming/Idaho area. I never knew my great great grandfather, but my great grandfather was around when I was a little kid. He died when I was still quite young and I never heard any stories from him about the railroad. I have no idea what being a railroad detective entailed. I imagined it was like security – kicking off hobos and keeping an eye out for Butch and Sundance. My grandmother is gone now, too. I really wish I could sit down with them and hear about their lives and jobs. All I know is my family is a huge believer in unions because of my grandfathers’ time with the railroad. When I was a kid and the teachers started talking about striking I was always holding out hope they would, because I knew my mom would never let me cross a picket line to go to school. They never did strike when/where I went to school, though.

    My great grandfather from my dad’s side was a sheriff. Damn, I really wish I could sit down for a meal with all of them.

  6. Before I saw this movie, I never thought of Ernest Borgnine as a badass. To me, he was one of the goofy Navy guys on McHale’s Navy and later became an older, tech-savvy, but still kinda goofy sidekick to Jan-Michael Vincent on Airwolf.

    So in the scene at the beginning when he kills that first hobo, Borgnine shows you that he’s not a goofy man. But in the scene where he first confronts Cigaret as he’s held prisoner by the other railroad workers, you can feel the menace in him building up as Cigaret unwisely mouths off to him. Borgnine is legitimately scary as he tells Cigaret what he does to hobos who try to cross him, and the look on Cigaret’s face as Borgnine lifts the chair he’s sitting in off the floor, then smashes it back down while Cigaret can only look and listen, tells it all. Borgnine really sells that scene, and you really believe this short old dude is ready to throttle a guy 30 years younger than he is until his head pops off!

    Also, how did you find out about that guy who sculpted that figurine of Lee Marvin as A-Number-1? I followed the link and saw that the guy’s on a modeling site, but still, that’s some uncommon dedication right there. I give that guy his props, that figurine is some excellent work.

  7. This is of course one of Marvin’s top-5 movies. But without Borgnine it wouldn’t have been what it is. After THE WILD BUNCH, THE REVENGERS, HANNIE CAULDER and this it’s hard to believe that he still was percieved as this nice old sidekick dude. Cudos to Aldrich too. According to Bronson the man would not listen to any advice, everything was filmed and said just the way he planned it.

  8. Robert Aldrich constantly used actors that were notoriously difficult to work with (Reynolds, Bronson, Marvin, Lancaster, etc). I wonder if it was him that made them that way?

  9. Pegsman, is it true Peckinpah was supposed to direct EMPEROR OF THE NORTH?

    If so, I’m kinda glad he didn’t, even if it is another Marvin-Peckinpah near miss. The run of movies Aldrich made in the mid-70s (say ULZANA’S RAID to TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING) is among the best by any American director ever. And because he’d been making great and popular movies since the early 50s these ones tend get overlooked in the story of 70s US cinema.

    Somehow I remembered Richard Jaeckel in EMPEROR OF THE NORTH but it seems that’s just my ageing memory playing tricks on me, though I’d argue it’s a reasonable assumption. But he was there in ATTACK in 1956 and still there in 1981 for …ALL THE MARBLES. Whatever it was Aldrich was doing, some great actors kept showing up for him.

  10. And am I the only one to wonder if being the Emperor of the North Pole is like being the Duke of New York?

  11. This is one of those movie where it seems normal while watching, but when you try to describe it to someone afterwards it’s sounds absolutely insane.

    I actually watched it with someone who was disappointed because the synopsis made it seem much crazier than it ended up being. But I think they were unable to see it’s true brilliance in convincing the viewer that this bizzaro universe was somehow perfectly normal.

  12. Borg9, I read somewhere that Peckinpah was attached at one point. But had he done it, we wouldn’t have gotten Lee. Marvin avoided Peckinpah like the plague. He could have played Pike Bishop in ‘69, but realized that Sam would have pushed him over the cliff, as he put it.

  13. Looks like I’m going to have to watch this over the weekend.

  14. Yeah, this movie is absolutely killer. It’s been a while, but I remember when I watched it becoming completely engrossed in this world. I first encountered Borgnine in that dumb NBC sitcom, The Single Guy, so when I got older it was a real pleasure to see that he didn’t always play affable old dudes.

    Is it just me, or does it seem like movies are no longer telling stories from the point of view of the “little guy.” In 70s film and pop culture there seemed to be a stronger sense of class consciousness. A few years back I became really obsessed with The Rockford Files and I rewatched a bunch of Columbo (which I loved as a kid), and there’s a strong sense that the two main characters are blue collar workers going up against the rich and powerful. And they’re not “Kevin-James blue collar” where they live in a huge house in New York, either.

  15. That’s a great question, RBatty. Can we come up with a list from the last decade that qualify? FIGHTING was the first thing that came to mind (Tatum’s character starts out homeless and doesn’t progress much past that). There are a few movies about people from the projects, like ATTACK THE BLOCK or BRICK MANSIONS. Some of the STEP UP movies.

  16. A WALK AMONGST THE TOMBSTONES jumped to mind right away.

  17. People like Ken Loach and Mike Leigh are of course still making their depressing dramas about the working class. But in more action oriented movies it’s no longer “popular” to portray guys like Vince Majestyk. This is a problem that stretches to other types of cultural expressions too. A recent study in Sweden showed that the working class is almost invisible on TV today. Everybody’s either middle/upper class or waiting to be. And shows like ROSEANNE aren’t helping…

  18. I guess you could say that some of Jason Statham’s characters are working class.

  19. THE NICE GUYS has a couple of blue collar guys (literally for Russell Crowe’s Healy for much of the movie) taking on DoJ corruption and the automobile industry. But it’s set in the 70s, and no one wanted to see it anyway.

  20. Hey Vern, have you ever read London’s socialist, double unreliable narrator sci-fi(ish) book THE IRON HEEL? I feel that’s some IP that a streaming service is going to pick up soon and turn into a mini-series.

  21. Good call on Statham. I believe he was homeless in both REDEMPTION/HUMMINGBIRD and SAFE.

  22. I think I also wanted this to be crazier, bu in retrospect I admire how crazy it convinces you it’s not. Now that you guys mention it, I’ve also never given much thought to Aldrich as an auteur but he definitely had a bold mix of crass and class that is endearing to me.

    Speaking of class, I also prefer blue collar heroes. The one thing that doesn’t appeal to me about a lot of classic hard-boiled detective fiction is that they’re always solving the crimes of the idle rich. I have little interest in their problems and prefer stories about the little guy. My own series character walks in different circles throughout his life (he’s been to both grad school and prison) and he certainly puts on airs sometimes but at his core he’s working class, and so is his world. He’s always the little guy. It’s what I know.

  23. Aldrich more or less invented the spaghetti western style with VERA CRUZ (Leone’s Words), he got a comedic performance out of Bronson in 4 FOR TEXAS, he gave Burt Reynolds his best role ever in THE LONGEST YARD and he tackled some of the biggest egos ever on his movie sets – the man’s a legend.

  24. Neither is an action movie, but Magic Mike and Let The Right One In/Let Me In come to mind. 3 Billboards, too, I guess? And I haven’t seen Lean On Pete yet but it sounds like it’d fit the bill as well.

    But I wonder if the problem has more to do with the small pool of a-list talent available than the material available to be produced. Back when Hell Or High Water was released, I think Vern pointed out how the lead performances felt more like 2 guys cosplaying West Texas joes than actual, credible people you might meet in real life. Chris Pine is a funny, charming actor but him and Steve McQueen might as well be from different planets. It seems like if you’re an up-and-coming Hollywood leading man of the 2010s your life experience is either as the descendant of English baronry or eating sleeping and breathing Hollywood since before you could talk. 3 Billboards got a lot of flak for its uncomfortable engagement with racism, but its “extremely famous people convey blue-collar status via carefully scripted grammar constructions” vibe pulled me out of its world more times than I could keep track of.

  25. (already think of exceptions to what I just said. Channing Tatum is probably the most storied/obvious but i’m sure there’s more)

  26. The french refer to Aldrich as “le grande Bob” for a reason…

  27. My favorite hobo movie is William Wellman’s WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD from 1933. Its depiction of life during the Depression feels like a documentary. It also features an incredibly thrilling moment involving an oncoming train that made me wonder how they pulled it off without maiming anyone (IIRC, there is a commentary track that explains the ingenious trick involved).

    My wife and I have definitely noticed a lack of authentic working-class characters in recent mainstream films. Thanks to 80s ALL OVER, we’ve lately been watching movies from a time when it was still possible to believably depict down-on-their-luck characters on a regular basis–Paul Newman’s drunk lawyer in THE VERDICT, for instance. We don’t watch new stuff all that often, but it’s still apparent that such characters barely exist in the mainstream anymore. (For example, you might argue that SPIDER MAN’S HOMECOMING tried to position P. Parker as working-class, but the movie itself was too slick for this to be really convincing.)

    Someone should probably write a book about this subject. Vern, what’s on your plate after WORM ON A HOOK? :-)

  28. I’ve been thinking about this idea of working-class characters. I’ve been debating with myself if we can count certain types – like there’s the whole cop/PI/assassin/straight up criminal/ex-soldier, etc. I would say the cops would definitely count. Can we count the ones that live outside normal society, like FIRST BLOOD, JACK REACHER or THE EQUALIZER? And then there’s outside of normal society/in the criminal world like SHOOT ‘EM UP or PAYBACK. A PI could be a gray area – they have one foot in accepted society and the other in the criminal world. Anyway, food for thought.

  29. But there’s still a difference between, let’s say, Michael Caine’s Jack Carter and Tom Cruise’ Jack Reacher. The circles they move in and the digs they live in, everything looked more grimy and downbeat in the 70’s. That could just be cinemaeography, but sometime in the 80’s film makers started to get uncomfortable showing people without money as heroes. In BEVERLY HILLS COP 2 Axel has to live in a mansion and drive a muscle car to entertain us. And the jokes about the rich and shameless are gone.

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