Robert Aldrich was an action director with the soul of a nihilist. From his brutal mid-50s film noir ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ to his big-star, big box office successes of the ’60s, ‘The Flight of the Phoenix’ and ‘The Dirty Dozen’, a streak of the cynical, the embittered, the pessimistic runs through all of his films. Imagine Bergman looking around the wintry Swedish landscape and going, “Fuck this, I need some hard-ass types with guns on a suicide mission; that or a fucking big plane”, and you’re half way there.
Aldrich entered the 1970s – his last fertile decade as a film-maker (he would direct just one movie in the very early ’80s before his death in 1983) – in typically cynical fashion with ‘Too Late the Hero’, ‘The Grissom Gang’ and ‘Ulzana’s Raid’, the middle part of that little triptych one of Aldrich’s darkest and most joyless enquiries into the ugliness of the human psyche.
Then he made ‘Emperor of the North’. Which is full-on, attitudinous and brutal – of course it is: this is Robert freakin’ Aldrich we’re talking about – but is also kind of fun.
(Regarding the title. It was originally released as ‘Emperor of the North Pole’ – a self-deprecating moniker used among the hobos to denote the most daring and legendary of their kind (an emperor of the North Pole would be an emperor of nothing) – then later re-released as ‘Emperor of the North’. It was under the latter title that I first saw it on TV as a kid (one of those rare movies dad would let me stay up to watch); likewise the DVD copy I now own. I understand that in America, it’s still more commonly known as ‘Emperor of the North Pole’. Sorry. What can I say? I’m a limey.)
‘Emperor of the North’ kicks off with grizzled, world-weary hobo A-Nº 1 (Lee Marvin) fending off an attempted robbery by Cigaret (Keith Carradine), a fellow transient who talks big but wouldn’t score highly in an arse/elbow differentiation test. Dealing peremptorily with him, A-Nº 1 hops a train only to find Cigaret following him and drawing the railroad guard’s attention to the freight car they’ve holed up in.
Which is bad news since this particular train is the Old 19 and the guard who presides over it is the sadistic Shack (Ernest Borgnine), a man whose dedication to keeping his train free of hobos is messaniac in its intensity. “I’m gonna show you what happens to people who ride on my train with a ticket,” he snarls at one point. He’s hefting a bloody great hammer as he says it.
Ernest Borgnine is splendidly over-the-top as Shack. And I mean over-the-top in a good way. He scowls, he growls, his face glows red and veins beat in his forehead and his eyes threaten to pop out of their sockets. He doesn’t just take professional pride in his work - he enjoys it. Sure, his mission statement is that nobody rides his train without a ticket. But he still wants them to try. Just for the sheer pleasure of beating the crap out of them or hurling them to their death.
The three-way battle of wills between A-Nº 1, Cigaret and Shack begins after A-Nº 1 sets fire to the freight car Shack has them trapped in, hurling himself through the charred timbers to make his escape. Separated, Cigaret talks up his encounter with Shack and boasts that he rode the Old 19 for free. A-Nº 1, incensed at this interloper’s bullshit braggadocio, determines to ride Shack’s train all the way and prove that he’s emperor of the North Pole, not Cigaret.
Naturally, Cigaret can’t leave be and A-Nº 1, boarding the Old 19 under a heavy blanket of fog, finds his antagonist sneaking onboard alongside him. This takes place about a third of the way into the film; the remainder of its running time, with the exception of two bits of comic relief along the way (one at a riverside baptism, one in a hobo camp), is given over to the tense and, finally, brutal train journey.
The simplicity of its narrative gives ‘Emperor of the North’ its power. There’s no backstory. We never learn why A-Nº 1, with his obvious smarts and wily determination, became a hobo. Nor is Shack’s sadistic hatred of hobos given any provenance. These two men simply do what they do and what it comes down to, in the edge-of-the-seat finale, is a no-punches-pulled slug-fest involving fists, chains, axes and lumps of wood.
The cast give it their all, Aldrich keeps the pace brisk and the cinematography (by Joseph Biroc – who notched up over 100 credits including ‘Blazing Saddles’ and – also for Aldrich – ‘The Flight of the Phoenix’, ‘The Grissom Gang’ and ‘Ulzana’s Raid’) is just glorious. Only Marty Robbins’s hideous theme song ‘A Man and a Train’ lets things down (“a man ain’t a train and a train ain’t a man” - no shit, Sherlock!), but you can always mute the opening credits and play some Wagner instead: ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ while A-Nº 1 rides the rails.