AKA Emperor Of The North
DIRECTED BY: Robert Aldrich
FEATURING: Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, Keith Carradine
PLOT: A maniac conductor sadistically stalks hobos along his Depression era freight, smashing their skulls with a club hammer when they try to ride the rails. NO ONE rides his Number 19 train for free. Evil incarnate, he exists only to hunt men.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Emperor Of The North Pole may not have the requisite look, feel, or scary music, but it is very much a horror movie. Instead of the supernatural, the monsters are men. The killer is no cloaked slasher striking by night, but a crazy-eyed, obsessed railroad man, insane with twisted rage, filled with frothing blood lust, armed with cruel and unusual instruments of punishment. He gets his kicks by smashing in skulls and he strikes in broad daylight unrestrained, with complete impunity. This incongruency—a horrifying film that masquerades as a suspense drama by telling an unconventional, real-world story—makes for an unusual viewing experience. Add larger-than-life archetypal characters; bizarre, colorful monologues; and a deceptively simple plot about a symbolic evil vs. slightly-less-evil struggle, and the result is a riveting, weird movie.
COMMENTS: Pastoral Oregon locations set an illusory bucolic tone in the opening shots of Emperor Of The North Pole as a steam locomotive winds its way through rural woodlands. This is Union Pacific’s Number 19 freight, and it has a madman on board.
It is 1933, the depths of the Great Depression, and 1/4 of Americans are unemployed. Many of them are literally starving to death. A mobile army of homeless men roams the country looking for temporary work, stealing rides on the rails. They are nomads who live by no law but their own, and the Railroad Man is dedicated to their destruction. On the Portland route, that man is Shack (Borgnine), a ruthless conductor who enforces the “paying passengers only” rule with deadly reverence.
Railroads don’t like it when you stow away on board or trespass on their tracks. Today they employ a battalion of federally licensed, armed railroad detectives to catch you, and these men behave like real bastards when they do. But in 1933 even the railroads were hard up. His actions condoned by underfunded, undermanned, corrupt law enforcement, Shack takes the job of controller, making sure that no one rides for free. Drawing from his own sadistic black book of dirty tricks he patrols his train like a monstrous gargoyle, perpetually on the lookout for bums.
Relentless and Argus-eyed, Shack is a real-life Terminator: he can’t be reasoned with, he can’t be bargained with, he has no mercy to appeal to, he is hard to kill, and he will never, ever stop. Shack has a savage arsenal of bizarre, creepy weapons at his disposal, but his favorite is the engineer’s heavy, double-headed club mallet.
When Shack, creeping along the speeding 19’s boxcar catwalk, finds a tramp riding on the frame of a hopper car, he sneaks up on the hapless man. The bum, enjoying a sandwich, is blissfully unaware of the danger. With a fell swoop of the club hammer, Shack smashes the man’s skull. His head laid open, dangling between cars, the hobo begs for his life before being sucked under. In a spectacular, graphic sequence the rail cars’ sharp under-hangs ensnare the tramp and violently wad him up before the heavy wheels slice him in half like a biscuit.
For the Railroad Man, his pension and gold watch are at stake. For the hobo, it is a matter of survival. But for both, there is also pride. Shack is determined the hobos not see him as a free ride. He is humiliated and taunted when the hobo community marginalizes him by defying his rules.
The hobos hate Shack, but they also want to prove themselves to each other. To be a master hobo, a skilled man of the road who can survive in style and avoid arrest, is to become “Emperor of the North Pole,” king of the tracks. The term is cynically self-deprecating. Penniless, desperate, with no past, no future, no clout and nobody to vouch for them, the hobos perceive that they lead a futile, near meaningless, existence. Anybody presiding over the North Pole would be emperor of a worthless desert.
In this context, the alpha male tramp of the West Coast hobo “jungle” camps is the admired A-Number One (Marvin). A#1 is determined to prove himself Emperor Of The North Pole by successfully riding notorious Shack’s Number 19 all the way to Portland. He is dogged by a swaggering, inept, tag-along, upstart named “Cigaret” (Carradine). Using numerous tactics to sneak aboard and avoid detection on the 19, A#1 is caught between Shack’s criminal tactics and Cigraret’s malicious recklessness. Despite A#1’s paternal attempts to mentor him, Cigaret continuously betrays A#1 out of a sense of misguided competition.
In trying to derail Shack, A#1 and Cigaret nearly derail the entire train. To distract and misdirect Shack, A#1 and Cigaret do their best to compromise and professionally ruin him with a series of sidetracking stunts. But the stunts are not mere jokes. They are heavy, malicious felonies which endanger the hobos, other trains, and entire crews with imminent bloody death.
While the ‘bo’s believe Shack deserves killin’, their actions justify Shack’s murderous rampage as well. Like a runaway train, the perverse feud escalates beyond the boundaries of any sensible limits. The locomotive steams and roars. The whistle shrieks. The pistons churn. The black smoke streams into the sky. The trio of enraged men highball over the steel rails. Their murderous plots against each other descend into a maelstrom of frothy, blood-soaked madness. As they barrel along among the swaying cars of the speeding train, the inflamed trio hurtles toward an ultimate gladiatorial showdown to determine who will be Emperor Of The North Pole.
Writer Christopher Knopf’s deceptively minimalist script was tailor made for Robert Aldrich’s now familiar themes: men in their primal state squaring off against each other, the ultimate confrontation, man against environment, life as arena, life as a game, men and machines. The characters are simplistic and archetypal, and the space they occupy, like a gladiatorial ring, is very small: the area enclosed by two rails. The universality of these simple building blocks enabled Knopf to forge an engrossing adventure to which audiences can easily relate.
Knopf considered the political tempo of the times, the populist social attitudes of the downtrodden, the quest for survival, the attitudes of the elites; i.e. the fabric of society and its rules. He rendered these factors down into a raw story about a conductor who won’t have hobos on his train and the two hobos bent on defying him. The result is powerful and directly accessible without being dumbed down.
Every shot is carefully assembled as if it will be a still photo submitted for exhibit. Each frame showing a character is an artistic portrait. The selection of shots and the way they are edited is expressive and precise. Additionally, Aldrich used a fine grain film stock which reveals very sharp detail. The resulting visual impact dramatically emphasizes the action. This gives everything about the film a larger than life feel, and reinforces the conceit of archetypal characters in an archetypal situation.
Emperor Of The North Pole was re-released on DVD in 2006. The DVD reflects that the original film print was carefully preserved. The re-release has dazzling sharp picture quality.
Emperor Of The North Pole was inspired by Jack London’s On The Road and From Coast To Coast. It was shot along the Oregon Pacific and Eastern short line railroad near Cottage Grove, where Stand By Me (1986) was filmed in 1985. Viewers who see both will recognize the distinctive countryside. Stand By Me was the last of several motion pictures to be filmed on these tracks. The first, in 1926, the was The General, Buster Keaton’s famous period piece about a Civil War locomotive chase.
Surviving for over 90 years, the Oregon Pacific and Eastern was constructed in 1901 to bridge Cottage Grove southeast to the Bohemia mining district. The last train ran the line in the mid 1990s.
The steam locomotive and trains used in the filming of Emperor Of The North Pole were part of the actual working stock of the railroad, still in use in the the 1970’s. Shack’s Number 19 locomotive featured in the movie is a 1915 Baldwin 2-8-2. It pulled excursion trains well into the ’70’s along the Oregon Pacific and Eastern (pictured below).
Old #19, Oregon Pacific and Eastern – photograph by John Goldie
Number 19 still runs today, pulling the “Blue Goose” excursion train on the Yreka Western Railroad between Yreka and Montague, California.
The terms “hobos,” “tramps,” and “bums” have been used interchangeably in this recommendation for purposes of convenience. This is actually not correct usage, as the names have distinctly different meanings. Here is the rule for remembering them: a bum sits and loafs, a tramp loafs and keeps moving, but a hobo works and moves, and he is clean.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…an unusual, uncompromising and much underrated film.”–Film 4