Borgnine and Lee Marvin go head to head on the railroads in this
fantastic film from Robert Aldrich. Fox Canadian R1 release.
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.
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.
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.
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)
A some fights and blood, notably at the very beginning and the end.
Who is it for?
Highly recommended, especially to railway fans, and fans of Marvin or Borgnine.
Original Aspect Ratio - 1.85:1 anamorphic wide-screen. Colour. The image is nearly perfect with only infrequent print damage, minimal grain.
English stereo and mono tracks - sound fine. French and Spanish dub tracks, sound okay, slightly tinnier.
English HOH and Spanish.
The disc includes:
commentary from film historian Dana Polan - full of details and
observations about the film, it is really only of interest to academic
Original theatrical trailer and two television spots - very grainy.
EASTER EGG: An original Emperor of the North Pole theatrical trailer.
Standard Amaray case.
Region 0 (all players) - NTSC
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).
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).
Superb acting, a well written script, and strong direction make this a perfect film. Highly recommended.
A good looking and sounding DVD
release, although the audio commentary is a little academic, an
interview with Borgnine, Carradine and others who worked on the film
would have been far more interesting.