Flix Picks: Emperor of the North

Flix Picks is a semi-regular feature that explores the depths of my Netflix queue and allows me the chance to catch up with some older films that I’ve not yet seen.

Since Hobo with a Shotgun is currently in theaters, I thought it would be a good time to highlight another hobo-centric film, Emperor of the North, just in case anyone out there should be craving more hobo-related stories. Unlike the recent release, this film is not a grindhouse-style shocker but, comparatively speaking, a more mainstream action/adventure flick. Emperor of the North takes place in 1933 during the height of the Great Depression when many struggled just to survive. During this time, a new class of poor people developed, often gathering together to form makeshift communities. Low on basic necessities, the unemployed and homeless would often hitch rides on trains as a means of transportation. While some trains might have been a safe bet for a ride, this story focuses on one locomotive that no bum dared to board – the Number 19, run by a menacing engineer named Shack (Ernest Borgnine).

This particular railroad man built up an infamous reputation among the hobo community as a one-man torture chamber. If a bum sets one foot on his train, they wouldn’t be heard from again. The hobos speak of him as if he was the stuff of legend. It is said that if one bum could ever successfully ride Shack’s train, he would be immortalized as the king of the tramps, the Emperor of the North Pole. That’s exactly what bum A No. 1 (Lee Marvin) sets out to do after an initial encounter with Shack’s train. Along with a brash young bum named Cigaret who also decides to take on the challenge, he’s out to prove his worth as the best stowaway around. With that competition in place, the stakes are set, bets are placed, reputations are on the line, and the battle of wills commences.

While the basic premise of this film could be considered kind of ridiculous, what really sells it are the performances. Both Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin play their parts completely straight, never winking at the camera. I have to say that I’ve never seen Borgnine as intense as he is in this film. His eyes have the look of a complete psycho at times. His character is almost as machine-like as the train he operates, bound and determined to get the job done. When he’s on the hunt, you sense the rage coursing through his veins. Lee Marvin once again proves to be one the coolest actors to grace the screen. His very presence is enough to inform us that A No. 1 is among the craftiest of hobos and that he’s a worthy challenger for Shack. Keith Carradine holds his own against the two veterans while playing a cocky bum trying to make a name for himself. While his character may not receive as many memorable moments as the two leads, Carradine makes the most of what he’s given. The dynamic between Cigaret and A No. 1 was amusing to watch as the old hobo reluctantly takes the younger one under his wing and attempts to teach him how to be a great bum. It’s as if Lee Marvin is playing a more grizzled version of Obi-Wan Kenobi.

I really enjoyed the world this movie creates. The overall setup of the film, pitting hobos against conductors, is a pretty great idea and one that I’m surprised hasn’t been explored more often. The subculture of the hobos was entertaining and had an interesting dynamic. For instance, the tramps all seemingly know one another and find ways pass along messages from town to town. They often help each other when facing tough situations, even ensuring that A No. 1 has a chance to board Shack’s train. Call me a simpleton if you will, but it’s endlessly amusing to for me to watch a group of hobos cheering for one of their own to give a conductor his comeuppance. (Side note: not that it would affect my opinion of the film, but I wondered while watching how much antagonism there really was between conductors and bums during the Depression. If it was anything close to this scale, then I will definitely have to read up on the subject.)

Emperor of the North is directed by Robert Aldrich, who remains a somewhat overlooked filmmaker. His other films include The Dirty Dozen, The Flight of the Phoenix, The Longest Yard, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and Kiss Me Deadly. The tone he brings to this film sets it apart from many other films of the time as it contains a unique mix of action, violence, and comedy. You can easily find yourself laughing and cringing during some of the same moments. For example, at one point Shack throws his weapon of choice, a hammer, towards another character’s head, and when it connects an uncomfortable laughter inevitably bursts forth from audiences. Today audiences see this sort of thing all the time, but I think Emperor of the North was among the films to start the trend, at least in America. The oscillation between violence and comedy probably held the movie back during its initial release, but seen now the dynamic fits right into modern sensibilities.

While I definitely enjoy the film, there are a few aspects that drag it down a bit. The dramatic weight behind the story could have been pushed higher, especially since there were opportunities to do so. The betting on the event isn’t really followed up with much as the film progresses. As it stands, the film leans more on the reputations of the lead characters, along with their well-being, as the main source of drama. That works fine, but there were moments when I wanted a little more. The film could also stand to lose a few minutes, I think. At two hours, it comes close to overstaying its welcome. I was never bored with it and I wasn’t checking my watch either, but by the end, I couldn’t help but think a little trimming might have benefited the film. And speaking of the end, it comes off a little anticlimactic. Yes, A No.1 and Shack face off as they should, and it’s a great battle, but afterward the film just ends. I’m not against abrupt endings – and this one didn’t bother me too much – but it left me wanting, again, a little more.

So, while not perfect, Emperor of the North is certainly a solid watch and one that I would easily recommend people check out. If you are searching for a classic “tough guy” movie, then search no further. Marvin and Borgnine bring their A-game to this one. The scenes of action and suspense are well constructed by Aldrich and the injection of comedy among those scenes provides a distinctive feel for the time. If you are still on the fence, then perhaps I can provide a deciding factor for you. I think you need only listen to the film’s opening theme song in order to determine whether you’ll want to give it a watch. Titled “A Man and a Train”, if you are on board for this uplifting song of hope, then you should be on board for the rest of the film as well.

As always, feel free to give this a watch on Netflix Instant and then share your thoughts on the film.

SCORE: 3.5 stars

  • pippa middleton

    Check out Jay’s Q&A for Beauty Day here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YngL8N-Ev_E

  • pippa middleton

    For those interested, the “Critical Masscast” podcast (episode 34) reviews Beauty Day: http://criticalmasscast.com/?tag=hot-docs

  • pippa middleton

    That is, if you can get passed the extreme gayness of one of the co-hosts

  • fatbologna

    I absolutely love this movie! One of my favorite Lee Marvin films. I actually like the fact that they don’t push the drama too much in this one. It’s a fairly light film that doesn’t focus too heavily on the potentially depressing nature of the story. Borgnine’s really great here too. He played villains a few times in his career but was never quite as intense as in this film. Great flick!

  • Hugh

    A sad indictment on the economic conditions of the day.

    The height of aspiration for a whole community of fit and able men was to……………hitch a free ride on a train or worse put yourself in serious threat of physical injury through coming into contact with those awesome Borginine forearms and fists….Ouch!!!!!!