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EMPEROR OF THE NORTH(director: Robert Aldrich; screenwriter: Christopher Knopf; cinematographer: Joseph Biroc; editor: Michael Luciano; cast: Lee Marvin (A No. 1), Ernest Borgnine (Shack), Keith Carradine (Cigaret), Charles Tyner (Cracker), Simon Oakland (Policeman), Elisha Cook (Gray Cat), Jr., Sid Haig (Grease Tail), Malcolm Atterbury (Hogger); Runtime: 118; Inter-Hemisphere/20th Century-Fox; 1973)
“The film is muscular…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This screenplay was the project of screenwriter Christopher Knopf and after director Marty Ritt was fired by Paramount studio boss Bob Evans and Sam Peckinpaugh was not satisfied with the money offered him to direct, the film was offered to Robert Aldrich to shoot it at Fox. Aldrich was handed it fait a complis, and that’s what he filmed. His only creative output was to change the Borgnine role into a one-dimensional villain, when he was originally written to change gradually into such a villain role. The film’s theme as set by Knopf was “How far men will go to preserve the illusion of their own importance,” and secondarily, “The hero who is sometimes made and owned by the crowd, driven and imprisoned by the crowd (i.e. no way off the train) to his destruction, at which time the crowd will find a new one to take his place.”

The epic duel between the king of the hobos versus the most sadistic of Railroad Men during the height of the Great Depression in 1933. The simple story taps into the hatred the railroad people have for the tramps. It is about one bum’s aim, Lee Marvin, who is known as A No. 1, king of the hobos, to ride the previously not ridden No. 19 freight train of the murderous Shack (Ernest Borgnine).

The film for the most part steers clear of the political situation in the country instead it uses these men as powerful mythic symbols, showing the oppressed versus the oppressor. Marvin is laconic, immensely proud to be a hobo, and proud enough to claim he can ride any train for free. While Borgnine is a sadist, who sports a menacing grin and believes that the hoboes are the scum of the earth. He will sledgehammer anyone to death who thinks they can get a free ride on his train. Borgnine’s claim to fame is, no one gets a free ride on his train unless they want to be dead. These two are on a collision course and their dispute can only be settled in a violent manner.

Into the picture comes a young hobo called Cigaret (Keith Carradine), who has an unmitigated gall for taking risks but has trouble telling the truth. Cigaret has no class in the beginning of the film and no class by the film’s end. He forces himself on Marvin by riding along with him on No. 19. Marvin reluctantly tries to make him into a professional hobo but the kid is a wise guy, always making a backstabbing remark as a rejoinder to anything Marvin says.

Marvin announces his challenge to Borgnine by writing on the water tower: A-No. 1 to Portland on train No. 19. This comes after Marvin rode in with Borgnine to New Orleans for a short hop, but was discovered in the empty cattle car when Carradine also jumped in. When Borgnine locks them in the car it spells certain doom for them, but Marvin sets the car on fire and jumps out in time.

Not able to shake Carradine he acts as a reluctant teacher, trying as best he could to warm up to the obnoxious kid. When they are spotted by Cracker (Tyner), another enforcer on the train, they are forced to jump off. But determined to continue, Marvin greases the tracks to slow down another passenger train so that they can hop aboard and thereby meet No. 19 in Salem, Oregon.

Trying to teach the kid the ropes, Marvin takes him to a Baptist baptism in the river and has the kid steal their clothes while the worshipers are going through with the dunking ritual. If the kid could just shut up and be grateful that he is learning how to be a hobo from the king, Marvin could have warmed up to him a little.

But Marvin’s main beef is with Borgnine. This all leads to the duel between the steel chain swinging Borgnine and the board wielding Marvin, as Carradine chickens out and becomes only a reluctant cheerleader for Marvin. The fight atop the moving train is filled with blood and gore.

Marvin is terrific as the spry and wizened hobo. Borgnine is a caricature of someone spewing hatred. Carradine is the one who breaks the illusion that all the hobos are good and all the railroad men bad. The film is muscular, depicting the natural beauty of the Oregon countryside, while the aimless life of the hobos is humorously set in motion. It’s just too bad that the film couldn’t connect all the dots with the corrupt political situation that caused this great suffering in the country and left so many with either hardened hearts or with empty stomachs.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”