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Emperor of the North Pole (1973)

November 29th, 2006 · 3 Comments

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In 1933, an opening crawl reminds us that “hoboes roamed the land, riding the rails in a desperate search for jobs.” One such hobo hops aboard the No. 19 freight train as it stops for coolant in Oregon. The No. 19’s sadistic bull, known simply as “Shack” (Ernest Borgnine) cracks the hobo over the head with a hammer, sending his body under the rails and splitting him in half.

We then meet a legendary hobo known only as “A No. 1″ (Lee Marvin) camped near the tracks with a live chicken. A lanky youth who goes by the name “Cigaret” (Keith Carradine) and some kids try to steal his lunch, and get beaten with the chicken for their breach of hobo etiquette. A No. 1 hops the 19 as it rattles by. Cigaret follows him.

Locked in an empty steer car together, A No. 1 sizes the kid up as a rank amateur. The master comes up with a clever ruse to escape the car without getting killed by Shack, but Cigaret is captured. The railyard workers holding him are amazed someone rode Shack’s train and lived to tell about it, and offer to let him go, on the condition that he tries the stunt again so they can bet on the outcome.

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A No. 1 hears about this and is not happy some Johnny Come Lately is stealing his thunder as the king of the hoboes. Scrawling his intentions on a water tower, A No. 1 decides to ride No. 19 all the way to Portland. He uses the morning fog as cover and begins a game of cat and mouse, hopping on and off the train, staying one step ahead of Shack, while also having to compete against Cigaret.

Directed by Robert Aldrich and written by Christopher Knopf, who based his story on Jack London’s The Road, and From Coast to Coast With Jack London by Leon Ray Livingston, the real “king of the hoboes” who went by the handle A No. 1 and developed the system of symbols hoboes used to relay information and warnings to their fellow knights of the road.

The project was originally set up by producer Robert Evans at Paramount for Martin Ritt to direct, but Evans fired him, and approached Sam Peckinpah to shoot the film. Peckinpah dropped out after he was unable to get the budget he wanted. The project was sold to Fox and with Aldrich in the director’s chair, the characters were molded into archetypes – no names, no backgrounds – and the story made to comment on the youth of the time, whom Aldrich viewed as apathetic.

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When the film failed to sell many tickets, it was retitled Emperor of the North, presumably so audiences would understand it didn’t take place in the Arctic. The youth critique probably didn’t help and the film was not a financial success. It wasn’t even available on DVD until June 2006.

Emperor of the North Pole is flawed, but is one of the great lost films of the ’70s. For starters, the dialogue has a sweet, retro punch to it, with A No. 1 snarling puzzlers like “You ain’t stoppin’ at this hotel, kid. My hotel! The stars at night, I put em there. And I know the presidents, all of em. And I go where I damn well please. Even the chairman of the New York Central can’t do it better.”

As expected, Lee Marvin doesn’t so much play the king of the hoboes, he is the King. Along with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, this is my favorite of Marvin’s many big screen bad asses. Borgnine is okay, but is hindered by not having anything to work from in the script. He’s evil for the sake of evil. It’s never made clear where this hobo hatred of his came from.

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As for Keith Carradine, his character has two moods: punchy and irritated. How much of this was Aldrich’s youth commentary and how much of it was Carradine I couldn’t say, but every time his character opens his mouth and starts to whine like some kid who had his lunch money stolen, I wanted to throw him under a train.

Frank DeVol’s musical score is good, but the film opens with a wretched tune sung by Hal David called “A Man and a Train.” I guess Captain & Tennille or The Osmonds were not available.

The problem is that Aldrich took such rich source material and made a ’70s movie out of it. This isn’t about the Depression. We see some hoboes and get a glimpse of poverty, but this was just window dressing for Aldrich to make another film about Anti-Establishment versus Establishment, with the Youth Generation unwilling to take a stand for anything. This probably came as news to anyone in the antiwar or civil rights movements of the time.

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This finger wagging is unfortunate because Aldrich does a spectacular job assembling the film. The camerawork (by Joseph Biroc), editing (by Michael Luciano) and the Pacific Northwest locations are all beautifully rendered. The film was shot around Cottage Grove, along the Oregon Pacific and Eastern Railway. OP&E also lent two steam locomotives to the production, making this one of the most authentic train films ever.

This is a gem just waiting for some MBA in Hollywood to remake it. The Flight of the Phoenix and The Longest Yard – two of Aldrich’s most popular films – were thrown into the remake blender recently, but the originals were products of their time, perfect as is. Emperor of the North Pole is just as memorable, but could stand an imagining. Hobo culture and its battle of wills with the railroad are rich with possibilities that went unrealized here. I loved it anyway.

The talented supporting cast includes Charles Tyner (the firebug from The Longest Yard), Harry Caesar, Matt Clark, Vic Tayback and Sid Haig, who took a break from menacing Pam Grier in AIP drive-in flicks to appear briefly as a grinning hobo.

Tags: Master and pupil · Road trip

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Phil Snyder // Mar 19, 2007 at 5:00 pm

    I agree with you here, in terms of Emperor of the North being a good source for a remake. Of course, I love the film, but it’s another one that you have to squint a little and ignore a few things, focusing instead on the best parts. It would NOT be the same with just about any of today’s “tough guy” actors (maybe I should have put “actors” in quotes, too), however, but with the right director and perfect casting it could be great. If Peckinpah had directed it, I think he probably would have screwed it up, frankly, or at least not have done a much better job than Aldrich, who was typically flat and bland. Then again maybe I’m wrong. That title song (and boy, does it suck!) is actually sung by the great Marty Robbins, I believe.

  • 2 Theodore R. Hazen // Oct 4, 2007 at 12:32 pm

    I don’t think the song sucks!. The song is very approbate to the movie. The real A-No.1 a.k.a. Leon Ray Livingston ran away from home at the age of 11 because of a song, “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” and spend the next 33 years riding the rails.

    Thank you,
    Ted Hazen
    “A-No.1 At Rest At Last” Web Site.
    http://www.angelfire.com/folk/famoustramp/index.html

  • 3 Phil Snyder // Aug 20, 2009 at 9:07 pm

    Well, I guess we disagree about the song, then. I can explain why I think it sucks (and to my ears it does), but in the end it’s like so much else – mere personal opinion. By the way, I am trying to gather Lee Marvin-related material from anyone who has something they’d like to publish or re-publish (like this review) at my website. If interested, let me know. Thanks!

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