Iconic action movie titans Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine battle it out over the Oregon rails in the violent, exhilarating Emperor of the North. Just don’t go lookin’ for meaning, kid.
By Paul Mavis
If you were a movie-crazy kid back in the early 70s like me, and you were getting dropped off at the matinee by your mom (because the solid rubber tire on your “Sunburst Orange” Schwinn Stingray finally wore out), then you remember there was one overriding factor that determined what you were going to see at that Saturday matinee: the movie’s rating. Moms out there lived by the MPAA ratings back then. If she got the “right” answer from the lady in the ticket booth—which of course could only be “G,” “GP,” or later “PG”—then and only then were you given your candy money and shooed on your way while she went to the beauty parlor. Otherwise, wish away in front of the “R” rated posters, kid, ’cause you ain’t going in until your older brothers could sneak you in.
So imagine my wonderment in 1973 when, two hours after being dropped off at the local movie house, I gleefully informed my Mom that she had just paid for me to see any number of gory mayhems, including iron sledgehammers to the head, vivisection by train, and a full-on axe blow to the arm, bright with red paint blood, all courtesy of director Robert Aldrich’s PG-rated, action/allegory train epic, Emperor of the North, starring Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine. Mom had a case of the vapors, but Dad, after hearing my dizzying review, took me back again later that week, bless him.
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Unfortunately, not nearly enough Moms mistakenly let their boys see Emperor of the North. Robert Aldrich, still hoping to recapture the glory that was his earlier, all male action hit, 1967’s top-grosser, The Dirty Dozen, fashioned what could have been a sure-fire audience pleaser that somehow managed to find no audience…but which had most critics giving praise to his myth-making efforts. It was violent, it was funny (well, not top-notch Aldrich funny, like his following year’s smash, The Longest Yard), and it moved like an express train.
It’s 1933, as Emperor of the North’s title card reads, at the height of the Great Depression. Men must be tough to survive, tougher than the machines that serve them. Shack (Ernest Borgnine), a vicious, sadistic railway man, allows no one to ride his train without a ticket. No one. And those that dare to, those hobos that ride the rails in search of…in search of anything to survive through the day, who break the rules of Shack’s world by mooching a ride, give up all rights as individuals, and thus can be killed with impunity.
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You jump Shack’s train, and you stand a good chance of going under the wheels at his hands, just as the first ‘bo does in the movie’s horrific opening sequence (thanks, Mom!). Shack’s a voracious black hole of hatred and violence; it’s tough to tell if the sounds of hissing steam, clanking metal, and screeching wheels are coming from the train, or from Shack’s boiling, rage-filled head and body.
…unless of course you’re A-#1 (Lee Marvin), the “King of the Hobos,” the “Emperor of the North Pole.” You ride whatever rail you want (“The stars at night—I put ’em there! And I know the Presidents—all of ’em—and I go where I damn well please,” A-#1 exclaims). Whatever story you tell is true because you’re telling it, and you can make anybody believe it because not only are you tough enough to back it up, but you’re a natural born leader who’s looked up to by the other stewbums. And nobody, including the dreaded Shack, is going to stop you from hitching a ride to Portland on the Number 19 train.
The story’s character triangle is complete when the young braggart punk Cigaret (Keith Carradine) is introduced. Cigaret wants to be the new top ‘bo, but his dismal, confrontational, grating boasting clearly undercuts whatever skills he may have. As A-#1 says later to him, he’s got the juice, but not the heart. If he is to survive, he must learn from A-#1. But can you learn that elusive quality of “class”? Exactly why A-#1 chooses to help Cigaret is anyone’s guess (the screenwriter and director sure didn’t know…). But they team up (sort of) against Shack to ride his train, to create a new story for the bums and ‘bos that live in the hobo jungles along the tracks, to give hope to them that evil incarnate Shack—the very embodiment of the crushing economic and social depression that has gutted these men/animals—cannot snuff out their dreams. The story will become the myth…if A-#1 and Cigaret can stay on the train.
Based very loosely on the books The Road by Jack London and From Coast to Coast (with Jack London) by “A-No.-1” (pen-name of Leon Ray Livingston) Emperor of the North as envisioned by Aldrich and screenwriter Christopher Knopf was clearly reaching to be more than a simple actioner to please male audiences (Aldrich stated, among other things, that Emperor of the North was an extended allegory of Vietnam). But did he succeed here in delivering more than just a first-rate actioner? To listen to the Aldrich cultists, he did. To listen to those movie fans who champion any “lost” or “forgotten” title all out of proportion to its merits, he did. But to me?
There’s no question that Aldrich is clearly in his element when the action scenes take over (which thankfully make up the majority of the movie). The brutality and full-force violence of Aldrich’s fairytale of hobos riding the forbidden Depression-era rails is almost gleeful in its kinetic appreciation of physical suffering. Several of the set pieces are remarkable for their drive and editing (courtesy of Aldrich’s house editor Michael Luciano, with assistance from Roland Gross and Frank Capacchione). The scene involving the near collision of Number 19 with a fast-moving mail train—a predicament caused by A-#1, by the way, who callously ignores the impending results of this collision—is beautifully done. The various fights aboard the train are spectacular, with many shots showing the lead actors doing their own dangerous stunts. And the celebrated Marvin/Borgnine flatcar fight scene at the end, complete with near-perfect action compositions (and some shakily matched exterior lighting — each new shot may be cloudy or sunny), must have thrilled and shocked the few people who saw Emperor of the North on the big screen.
The performances are uniformly fine, as well, with a particular standout being Borgnine’s demonic Shack. Borgnine exhibits an almost preternatural affinity here for the primitive Id, supercharged and abetted by various crude implements of violence, including sledgehammers, chains, and a particularly deadly linchpin, dangled and fed out by a rope under the cars, allowing it to bounce up off the railroad ties and beat senseless the ‘bos that perch underneath. His close-ups are startling in their menace and intensity (Aldrich is particularly effective in using Borgnine’s face to fill the wide screen). Marvin, who looks disturbingly older and paunchier than his appearance only a year earlier in Prime Cut, certainly looks weather-worn and rough-and-tumble. No one could toss off a throw-away glance like Marvin, expressing comic low-level disdain or incomprehension at someone being so dumb. He’s quite funny, as always. And physically, he’s spot on; he looks like a powerful, yet ragged, jungle cat: quick-witted, sinewy, innately graceful. As Cigaret, Keith Carradine is annoyingly perfect. Have you ever thoroughly wanted to watch someone get thrown from a train? No? Well, watch Carradine and cringe. Other stalwart character actors such as Charles Tyner, Malcolm Atterbury, Hal Baylor, Matt Clark, Liam Dunn, Robert Foulk and Vic Tayback lend their usual solid support.
Along with the spectacular Cottage Grove, Oregon scenery (with Aldrich trucking his camera over the same Oregon, Pacific, and Eastern rail lines that Buster Keaton used for The General), some of the language of Emperor of the North’s screenplay has a ramshackle poetry to it that captures the otherworldly, mythical tone Aldrich set out to achieve. Several of the lyrical speeches in the movie, where A-#1 poetically expounds on his credo, work well, particularly Marvin’s thrilling final speech to punk Cigaret as A-#1 rides his train straight into mythology (“Stick to barns, kid! Run like the devil! Get a tin can and take up moochin’! Tackle back doors for a nickel! Tell ’em your story! Make ’em weep! You could’ve been a meat eater, kid! But you didn’t listen to me when I laid it down! Stay off the tracks! Forget it! It’s a bum’s world for a bum!”).
However, if you’re given a minute to breathe here, Aldrich runs into trouble when you look at the narrative’s mechanics too closely. Just from a time standpoint, the film is far too long to support the story, let alone a sense of violent fairy tale, the main culprits being a trio of scenes at the beginning of the third act that criminally stop the movie dead in its tracks. Just when A-#1 and Cigaret (after getting kicked off Shack’s train…again) have caught up with the Number 19 and Shack, just when the movie should go straight into maximum overdrive, Aldrich throws in three scenes that, quite frankly, are an embarrassment.
First, Marvin steals a turkey, and humiliates rail yard cop Simon Oakland into barking like a dog (yep, it plays just as badly as it reads). Second, Marvin has a largely unmotivated confrontation scene with Carradine in a hobo shack that almost plays like it was lifted from an earlier section of the movie. From Carradine’s bewildered reaction shots, and from some of the dialogue which goes over thematic territory supposedly already settled between the two characters earlier in the movie, we feel like we’re mistakenly watching a reel from the first half hour. And third, Aldrich throws in a gratuitous Baptism “comedy” scene that supposedly shows how Marvin teaches Carradine to steal clothes (which we never see), but which plays out as a cheap excuse to show a girl with wet, clinging clothes, and some heavy-handed mugging from Marvin ogling her. These scenes really put the brakes on Emperor of the North’s momentum, and they show how crudely (and at times, such as here, how ineptly) Aldrich handled his comedy scenes.
Released in late May of 1973, Emperor of the North failed to find even an audience of undiscriminating action fans. Although it’s always guesswork as to why any particular title either does or doesn’t tickle an audience’s fancy, the unrelenting, gruesome violence may have been a turn-off to the women in the audience. As well, Marvin, who had A-level name recognition, wasn’t actually in the top tier of box-office attractions anymore (Borgnine never had the kind of pull, as the generic saying went, “that put asses in the seats.”). And there was speculation that the original title (Emperor of the North Pole, which was changed after press screenings and a few isolated play dates) may have thrown audiences, making them think they were seeing something about the wilds of the Arctic. Movie reviewers at the time were quite positive about Emperor of the North, despite today’s perception (including that of the critic on the commentary track) that the film was a flop with the critics (in fact, many critics compared it most favorably against the then-current release of Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which is now considered a mangled masterpiece).
After the movie’s failure with audiences (which Aldrich stated he couldn’t quite understand), Aldrich gave a print interview where he stated that the characters were created as archetypes, representing “The Establishment” (Borgnine), “The Anti-Establishment” (Marvin), and “The Youth of Today [1973, that is] Who Won’t Fight On Either Side” (Carradine). Aldrich shows Cigaret failing to learn A-#1’s lessons numerous times, yet he can’t fit into Shack’s world, either. He is essentially, passive (as the final fight scene shows). Evidently, Aldrich felt that despite the social upheaval going on in America at that time, he wanted Emperor of the North to be a sort of a wake-up call to young people to shake off their sleepy acquiescence of society’s ills. When told by the interviewer that the youth of 1973 didn’t want to hear that about themselves, Aldrich merely stated, “I don’t care.” Well, that might explain why audiences didn’t show up (what kid thought they were going to get a valuable lesson from Marvin and Borgnine beating each other’s brains out?), but I suspect that isn’t entirely why the movie flopped.
However shadowy and vague Aldrich’s intentions at social messaging were, he certainly fails at them here in Emperor of the North. If A-#1 was supposed to be “Anti-Establishment,” then why does Aldrich and Knopf make him the role model for all the other ‘bos to look up to? He is the standard bearer; he is the romantic ideal to which they (and the audience) all aspire. He reigns over his own society of castoffs like royalty, not a rebel, and his rules of conduct—both moral and societal—are as rigid as any other firmly established ruler. Of course, he rebels against Shack, but society has already cast A-#1 aside; he’s hardly an agent for greater change. If anything, A-#1’s individualism serves to re-establish an aristocracy, a romantic courtly realm of ‘bos and bums, with strict rules of engagement. His view is a backward one to an ideal, coarsened by the Depression.
Shack works perfectly well as a symbol of Evil incarnate; but as a symbol of “The Establishment”? If Borgnine stands for “The Establishment” (it has been said that Aldrich specifically stripped Shack’s gradual descent into Hell from an earlier screenplay draft, making him instantly Evil from the start of the film), why then does he buck his own men, and the rules of the yard? Why does he throw aside all caution, dangerously “highballing” through the yard? Why does he push the old train past its endurance level, repeatedly against the wishes of his engineer? Wouldn’t “The Establishment” respect these rules? Are not the rules “king” to the “Establishment?”
Shack has his own set of rules, totally outside the established order: he’s more rebel than “Establishment.” His sense of self is ruled by what he can and cannot allow—no one will ride his train. Period. And if “The Establishment,” and thus Shack, is inherently and totally evil, as Aldrich stated at the time (a theme that reoccurs in several of his other films) why then does Shack show vulnerability, indeed concern, for the impending collision between the two trains? Why does he ask A-#1, indirectly, for help, implying that A-#1 and the other ‘bos should stop their games long enough for Shack to get the train out of the way, so that ten people won’t needlessly die? It’s A-#1 who callously responds to Shack here: “Sounds like a ghost story to me.”
As for Cigaret, even the director couldn’t adequately explain why A-#1 would help such a loathsome, punk-ass creature, after his numerous betrayals of A-#1. At one point in the film, when Cigaret asks A-#1 why he’s bothering to teach him anything, A-#1 replies, “I’m still working on that.” Uh…yeah. Their relationship is only necessary to perpetuate the Teacher/Student dynamic in the mythology. As far as it relates to the reality of the narrative Aldrich sets up, it makes no sense.
Aldrich obviously wanted these archetypes to occupy a schematic for an exciting, grueling, exhilarating ode to “Larger, Bigger Things,” when it may have sufficed to just have them fleshed out, to stand for real characters. Of course, big, vague ideas are easy to throw around for a socially liberal director like Aldrich; it’s much harder to get the specifics right…or Right (the classic example of that in his own ouver is The Dirty Dozen, where Aldrich utterly fails to make us feel bad about all that expertly-staged, hilarious violence we’re loving). As a visceral, physical movie, Emperor of the North succeeds quite well; there’s no need to ask any more from this kind of actioner than to get across the vitality, the vicarious physical thrill of sadistic violence. However, when you’re setting out to make “Myths” and “Legends,” when you’re asking much more of your genre material than is normally given, you better, as A-#1 would have said, be a meat eater, kid.
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.