Thursday, December 21, 2017

#2,480. Emperor of the North (1973)

Directed By: Robert Aldrich

Starring: Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Keith Carradine

Tag line: "The only way to win is to stay alive"

Trivia: Willis Kyle, President of the Oregon, Pacific and Eastern Railway, allowed the film company to have unlimited access to his company's rolling stock for the film

Lee Marvin vs. Ernest Borgnine… two of the roughest, toughest hombres in Hollywood history going head-to-head. Now that’s a movie, and it’s the showdown between the two that makes Robert Aldrich’s 1973 film Emperor of the North so entertaining. 

The year is 1933 and the Great Depression is in full swing. Vagrants commonly referred to as “hobos” hop onto moving railway cars in the hopes of getting to where to jobs are, but not everyone who works for the railroad is willing to give these destitute souls a free ride. One guy in particular, a conductor for the Oregon line known as “Shack” (Ernest Borgnine), is considered the meanest S.O.B. of the bunch, and would rather club a hobo over the head than let him stow away. Ask any vagrant and he’ll tell you: nobody rides for free on Shack’s train. 

But then, Shack has yet to cross paths with “A-No. 1” (Lee Marvin), the craftiest hobo of them all. A-No. 1 has vowed to ride Shack’s train to the end of the line, a feat that, should he pull it off, would make him a hero to his peers. 

One thing that A-No. 1 wasn’t banking on, however, was a partner; it seems that a newcomer named Cigaret (Keith Carradine) has been bragging about how he’ll beat A-No. 1 to the punch and be the first to sneak a ride on Shack’s train. Still, despite their rough start, A-No. 1 decides to take Cigaret under his wing and show him the ropes, all the while knowing it’s more difficult to sneak two people aboard a boxcar than one, and if Shack should catch them in the act, neither will live to tell their tale. 

Both Marvin and Borgnine are excellent in Emperor of the North, and we get a pretty good idea what to expect from their characters the first time they appear on-screen. In one of the film’s earliest scenes, Borgnine’s Shack spots a hobo trying to hop onto his train. Sneaking up behind the unsuspecting vagabond (who was resting for a moment on an outdoor platform), Shack hits him on the back of the head with a hammer, causing the poor vagrant to fall forward (he’s pulled under the train and killed instantly). From start to finish, Shack is a total bastard; even his fellow workers are against him (most are secretly rooting for A-No. 1 to succeed). 

On the flipside is A-No 1, a guy who knows what it takes to survive these tough times. When first we meet him, A-No. 1 is carrying a chicken he’s just swiped, and must fight off an attack by Cigaret and a couple of kids, who want the bird for themselves. A-No. 1 manages to get the better of them and escape with the chicken, proving he’s as tough as he is shrewd. The confrontations between Shack and A-No. 1 will follow suit: Shack relies on brute force to keep A-No. 1 and Cigaret at bay, while A-No. 1 uses the tricks he’s learned over the years to stay one step ahead of his adversary. 

Emperor of the North does have its share of humor (there’s a baptism scene that made me laugh out loud); some nail-biting action sequences (the final showdown between Shack and A-No. 1 is intensely violent); and a strong supporting performance by Keith Carradine, playing a guy we’re never quite sure about (at times, he’s unbearably arrogant). But Emperor of the North is at its best when Marvin and Borgnine are facing off against each other, two characters with very different ideals going mano et mano, and doing so in a way you won't soon forget.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Those hammer blows to the back of the head are quite effective! I'll have to watch this. I like Lee Marvin movies...especially "Paint Your Wagon" with Clint Eastwood.