A legendary depression-era hobo and his young accomplice battle a sadistic railroad worker in a determined bid to hitch a ride.
"I wanna see you rough as a jungle cat. Keep on goin' the way you are. Keep gettin' knocked around in the same places till the knocks don't hurt anymore. Then you run with the train. Remember it. But don't ever grab unless you're sure you can hold on. If you ever let go, she'll throw you under."
Films that explore the nature of good and evil, right and wrong are a hardly a unique occurrence. After all, you can't really have a protagonist without an antagonist. What makes a film unique is how and the means to which this dynamic is explored. Robert Aldrich's 1973 film 'Emperor of the North' uses the background of the Great Depression to set the stage for a battle between the greatest freight jumper and a violent maniacal train boss who is determined to keep freeloaders of his train.
In the depths of the great depression, men of all backgrounds lost their jobs and all means of an income. Without any pay, these men became homeless. Without the ability to afford transportation, let alone feed themselves, these men became "hobos," aimless drifters who would wonder from town to town in the hope of finding work, or for most of these men, a place in society to belong. While they had their two legs to carry them, it was far easier and efficient to travel by rail. Without the ability to pay for a ticket, that meant hopping freights illegally and hoping they didn't get caught.
For the mysterious man known to hobos all over the country as A No. 1 (Lee Marvin), hopping freights is like a national past time. It's dangerous to hop a freight and potentially even more lethal as train bosses are apt to kick you off a moving train. For the roughest, toughest, and deadliest train boss known as Shack (Ernest Borgnine), keeping hobos like A No. 1 off his train is his highest priority - and no one tells him how to do his job. Armed with a mallet and any other tool of the trade he can find, Shack beats and batters hobos off his precious 19 train - often to their deaths - making his ride the Mt. Everest of train hops to attempt.
When big mouthed but inexperienced Cigaret (Keith Carradine) interrupts A No. 1's ride on the 19, a challenge is issued. On one end, you have the train workers taking bets all the way down the line whether or not the 19 will be beaten on its next run. On the other end, you have the hobos rooting for A No. 1 to conquer the impossible and ride the 19 all the way to the end. While A No. 1 is more than ready for the challenge, he's going to have to deal with the hot-headed Cigaret while also dodging Shack and his brutality at every turn. While A No. 1 knows the best places on a train to catch a ride, trouble starts when he begins to run out of train and he'll eventually have to face the murderous maniacal Shack man to man.
From a screenplay by Christopher Knopf and directed by Robert Aldrich, 'Emperor of the North' is the best sort of thinking man's action film. With characters that adhere to the archetypal standards of good and evil and those caught in the middle, we witness two men wage a personal war for dominance over what amounts to nothing. Like most conflicts, the reason for the fight gets lost in the desire to prove something to someone. A No. 1 is a veteran who is looked at like a sort of hobo messiah, a man who stands up against the injustices of a troubled time by openly flaunting the law and he must fight to retain that status in the face of young bucks like Cigaret. Shack was once a decent man who has fallen so far from the light that he fails to see the inherent cruelty of his methods and has become a monster of ego. No hobo has hitched on his train and as his career goes on and the more runs he makes, the more important it is that he maintains the status quo - even if that means killing a man.
Lee Marvin was a tough guy of a bygone age, and the kind of presence that I dearly miss. The gravitas and weight he brings every roll is amazing, and as A No. 1, the man who dreams of being Emperor of the North, he delivers one of his finest performances. He's steely-eyed like any man who has been around and seen it all should be while also being approachable and earnest. The men that look up to him; he genuinely cares for and fully respects the esteem they hold him in. He's even more than willing to show Cigaret the ropes should the brash hothead cool it enough to learn something. To that effect, Keith Carradine is absolutely fantastic as Cigaret giving him an inner fury that is magnetic to watch. We never get to know his full back story, but we can only guess at what made him so angry so young that he feels the only way to prove himself is by jumping the toughest freights.
While Marvin and Carradine are wonderful and their dynamic works beautifully, 'Emperor of the North' wouldn't be the film that it is without the fierce performance from Ernest Borgnine. Borgnine is an actor that whenever I see him, even as a young man, I see someone's kind and friendly grandpa. Seeing the man go full tilt, driven to the point of murderous insanity to prove a point is frightening and incredible to see. Borgnine was never a slouch when it came to playing a tough guy, but usually there was a hint of humor - there is no humor in this man as he takes great pleasure pushing men off his train to their deaths. It's also rather amusing to me that both Marvin and Borgnine won their respective Oscars playing nice guys when in this picture, neither of them are too friendly which is fun when you consider they're 'Dirty Dozen' costars. Some could argue the film has a lack of characterization, but I would argue the opposite as the actors play a specific type. The type of person they play are so rich you don't need much more than that to enjoy the screen space they occupy. Any additional character complexities would have needlessly muddied a clean story and the film's tight pacing.
The pace of 'Emperor of the North' is one of its primary endearing qualities. The film is structured in such a way that when the train stops, so does that particular act of the film. And, like a train, once the next act begins it needs to pick up a little bit of steam before it can ramp up speed and cut loose along the rails. With that in mind, the suspense almost never stops. As much of the film was shot on actual moving trains, there is some incredible death-defying stunt work on display. From Borgnine running at a full sprint over the roof of the train cars to Lee Marvin hanging on underneath a car, to David Carradine hanging on the side of a car for his life, there are plenty of moments throughout this film where you have a lump in your throat and are sitting on the edge of your seat from the suspense. And that isn't saying anything about the brutal final battle between Shack and A No. 1.
'Emperor of the North' was a film that I had only heard of going into this viewing. I'd intended to see it before now, but the chance to never presented itself. I'd heard about this film in one of my writing classes on story structure and was always curious to get a look at it. Now that I have seen it, it is a film that I put on my favorites list. It might not make a top ten or even top twenty-five, but it's up there. It was a movie that I had to pause frequently to catch my breath and just say "wow" every now and again. With incredible direction, a fine script and a cast in their prime, I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of 'Emperor of the North.'
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Emperor of the North' arrives on Blu-ray thanks to Twilight Time and is limited to a run of 3000 copies. Pressed onto a BD50 disc and housed in a clear Blu-ray case, the disc opens directly to the main menu. Also included is a booklet featuring photos from the film as well as a very interesting essay by Julie Kirgo.
When it comes to catalogue releases for semi-obscure titles, it doesn't get much better than the stunning 1.85:1 1080p transfer for 'Emperor of the North.' Color is eye-catching and primaries leap off of the screen. Fine film grain has been retained and offers impressive detail levels for all establishing, middle and close-up shots. All you have to do is look at the makeup work done for Lee Marvin's teeth to appreciate how good this film looks on Blu-ray. With inky blacks and strong shadow separation, there is a pleasing sense of expansive depth to the image. Only occasionally do some of the shots suffer any kind of mild crush issues, but even then it's so slight that there really isn't anything much to talk about. The only "issue" some may have with the film's image quality is during the beginning of the second act where the production simulated fog by apparently putting some heavy filters over the lens. This scene looks a little brighter, less defined, and notably flatter-but that's also by intent and not a fault of the transfer, especially since it leads to a pretty impressive action sequence. This is a gorgeous looking film and since the print is in immaculate shape without any notable speckling or print damage, I have next to nothing to complain about or knock the score for.
'Emperor of the North' wins big marks for its fantastic English DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio mix. For an action-heavy film, there is plenty of dialogue exchanges and every word comes through cleanly. Levels are very well balanced because as I mentioned before the film comes in starts and stops so there are plenty of moments where the track gets loud and softens. Thankfully the mix is very accommodating and other than a brief moment in the middle of the film did I ever feel the need to adjust the volume. Dialogue, sound effects, and the sparse but folksy score from Frank De Vol have plenty of space and there is a strong sense of atmosphere throughout the film. Where this track really wins big is the use of imaging. While it doesn't get the added benefit of a full modern surround mix, the stereo presentation is robust and provides plenty of channel movement - even when the track is dominated by the chugging train engine - the sound effects have a very pleasing dimensional feel to them. Without any age-related issues to speak of, this is a fantastic track.
Audio Commentary: Film Historian Dana Polan is the only featured contributor to this track. Overall the track is an interesting listen, he provides some solid insight to the film as well as some production information, but overall the track does feel very clinical. It's worth a listen, but it didn't blow my hair back.
TV Spot: SD 1:32) A decent enough trailer, but I can see how this marketing campaign didn't really help sell the movie explaining why it did poorly during its initial theatrical run.
Original Theatrical Trailer: (HD 3:39) As a very long trailer, it feels like they were trying to convince the audience the movie they were promoting was good, but they oversell a lot of it to the point they give away the entire thing.
'Emperor of the North' had me hooked right away and never let go until the big epic final battle had finished. I didn't know what to expect going in and was happily surprised at every turn. I loved the movie and can't wait to show it to people. Twilight Time has done a pretty solid job bringing this film to Blu-ray with a pristine picture and an exciting audio track to match. Extras are a bit skimpy, but the audio commentary and isolated score tracks are worth a listen. I'm calling this one Highly Recommended.