Emperor of the North (1973) 

Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin go head to head on the railroads in this fantastic film from Robert Aldrich. Fox Canadian R1 release.

The Film

The early 1930s were the heyday of the Great Depression in the USA, and hundreds of out-of-work hobos travelled across the country looking for work. Up in the North-Western state of Oregon, the Oregon, Pacific and Eastern Railway was one of many railroads that were used as free rides for hundreds of these 'tramps', much to the disgust of the conductor known as Shack (Ernest Borgnine) who made it his job to clear them off his trains, even if it meant killing them. He gained an infamy for this behaviour, and soon it became part of the challenge to get a ride on his train. The hobo known as A no. 1 (Lee Marvin) accepts this challenge, promising to ride all the way up to Portland on Shack's train, but he is followed and hindered by a wannabe hero known as Cigaret (Keith Carradine) who hopes to make a name for himself and expects A no. 1 to teach him how...

Loosely based on a Jack London short story The Road about the author's time spent riding the railroads, Emperor of the North is a very well written film, avoiding a lot of potential pitfalls. The notion of a hobo riding the rails, and being followed by a young upstart could easily have been Disneyfied, with A no. 1 becoming a father figure and taking Cigaret under his wing - equally there was the potential that the film could have become gratuitously grim and hard to watch. Fortunately it manages the fine line inbetween, being realistically grim, yet generally enjoyable to watch - the opening scene really sets the tone for the rest of the film, with Shack throwing a hobo off the train, leading him to fall between the rails and be killed - there is some light comedy, but fortunately not of the slapstick kind. The film is well paced throughout with some very tense moments, and climaxes in an inevitable show down between the lead characters that certainly ranks as one the best in cinema, and is utterly relentless - with a suitably fitting ending.

Director Robert Aldrich supports the script with some superb directing with some great scenic angles. There is not a single blue screen shot in the film - the majority of the film, even the action scenes are all shot on board, and often on top of the trains - with no stunt men in sight. More importantly the film makers went to a great deal of trouble to achieve historical accuracy, with all of the trains authentic for the period, and the operating proceedures and language correctly observed (although one sequence with two trains coming head-on does seem a little dangerous, but it makes for an amazingly tense and exciting sequence). There is a single shot that appears to have been speeded up (a crime that many movies too often committ - the viewers really can tell) and some rather dodgy optical effects to simulate fog, but otherwise the film looks great. Composer Frank de Vol also worked with Aldrich on the classic war film
The Dirty Dozen (1967) and he does a generally good job here, although some of the music is a little upbeat in scenes that should be more tense.

The film boasts that classic 1960s/70s pairing of Lee Marvin and Ernest Bornine in the lead roles, both of which are heavily shaded in tones of grey - no heros or villains here. Marvin plays A no. 1 with great skill, really managing to avoid his character becoming a cuddly figure, but equally makes him likeable enough, despite doing some pretty bad things (risking more than one train crash). Ernest Borgnine is equally good as Shack, and coming from the opposite direction, manages to avoid his character from becoming gratuitously bad - he is certainly driven and prepared to risk lives to do his job, but not without due cause. Keith Carradine plays the young upstart Cigaret with yet another strong performance, managing to be neither hero nor villain. Look out for horror star Sig Haig (House of 1000 Corpses (2003)) in a brief role in bum's town.

Ultimately Emperor of the North is one of the best movies ever made - a trio of fantastic performances, a very well written script that manages to be both realistic and exciting, and some beautiful trains and locations leave nothing that could have been improved. Highly recommended to all.

In brief:

Anyone famous in it? Lee Marvin - the big Hollywood star best known for The Dirty Dozen (1967) and The Big Red One (1980)
Ernest Borgnine - also a Hollywood star, boasting such films as The Vikings (1958) and Ice Station Zebra (1968)
Directed by anyone interesting? Robert Aldrich - one of the big Hollywood directors from the 1950s - 70s, working on big action films like The Dirty Dozen (1967), Westerns like Apache (1954) and even a biblical epic Sodom and Gomorrah (1962)
Any violence? A some fights and blood, notably at the very beginning and the end.
Any sex? None.
Who is it for?
Highly recommended, especially to railway fans, and fans of Marvin or Borgnine.


Visuals Original Aspect Ratio  - 1.85:1 anamorphic wide-screen. Colour.
The image is nearly perfect with only infrequent print damage, minimal grain.
Audio English stereo and mono tracks - sound fine. French and Spanish dub tracks, sound okay, slightly tinnier.
Subtitles English HOH and Spanish.
Extras The disc includes:
  • Audio commentary from film historian Dana Polan - full of details and observations about the film, it is really only of interest to academic film fans.
  • Original theatrical trailer and two television spots - very grainy.
  • EASTER EGG: An original Emperor of the North Pole theatrical trailer.
    Packing Standard Amaray case.
    Region Region 0 (all players) - NTSC
    Other regions? Available on an identical release in the USA. Due on DVD in the UK on 3rd September 2007, cut by 3 seconds (see Cuts? below).
    Cuts? The film is believed to be fully uncut, print is in English with the re-issued 'Emperor of the North' print (the film was originally to be titled 'Emeperor of the North Pole' but was re-titled to avoid it sounding like a nature show.
    Note: The UK print (and all DVDs) of this film is cut by 3 seconds for animal cruelty (A no. 1 swings a chicken around).



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    All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 29th August, part of the Lee Marvin 20th Anniversay Blog-a-thon.
    Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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