Movies We Like
Emperor of the North
Starting with Bonnie and Clyde in ’67 and throughout the '70s, the Depression in America became an exciting setting for a whole slew of films. That dark period of the 1930s sometimes became romantically re-imagined as a freewheelin’ adventure time or was used more dramatically as a metaphor for current times. Prime examples include The Sting, They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, Paper Moon, Dillinger, Boxcar Bertha, and Hard Times. And though it does not get off to the most promising start, Robert Aldrich’s 1973 movie, Emperor of the North, ends up being one of the best action flicks of the decade, as well as an almost comic-book Valentine to the era.
After opening with a scroll about the history of hobos riding the rails, Emperor of the North then rolls into the most unfortunate film theme song with all-stars behind it, maybe ever. “A Man and a Train,” with lyrics by the great Hal David (partner of Burt Bacharach), music by the nearly legendary Frank De Vol (he scored most of Aldrich’s films and The Brady Bunch!) and sung by Marty Robbins (”El Paso”), features gems like “a man's not a train and a train's not a man. A man can do things that a train never can.” I’m not sure what the word is for homoeroticism between a man and a train, but this song is it.
Loosely based on Jack The Call of The Wild London’s 1907 sorta autobiography The Road, Emperor of the North is basically an actual duel between two tough guys. In one corner is the hero. He is named A-No.-1, and no, he is not a robot -- he’s more of super hobo. A-No.-1 is played by the great Lee Marvin, so you know he is cool. He’s revered by his hobo peers because of his reputation for being able to ride the rails on any train and outwit the conductors. (If you’ve seen the Woody Guthrie bio Bound For Glory, you know that riding the rails was a thing in the Depression; men climbed on trains and lived out of empty boxcars for survival and for sport). Meanwhile on the other end of the spectrum is the sadistic train conductor, Shack (Ernest Borgnine in awesome, full teeth growling mode). His reputation is for bringing extreme pain and/or death to any hobo with the guts to ride his train. Just based on reputations alone you can see why these characters won’t get along. So, like two aging samurais gearing up for battle, the film is really one big piece of build-up to their final duel. Meanwhile, Keith Carradine shows up as the youthful Cigaret. At first he thinks he can knock A-No.-1 from his top spot, but eventually, he concedes and learns the ways of the hobo lifestyle from him. A simple film only requires a simple explanation: violent, fierce, gritty, exciting fun.
The bizarre theme song aside, this is as macho and as manly as anything the often extremely masculine director has made. Don’t let the depiction by actor Alfred Molina of Aldrich as a weakling, in the otherwise excellent television series Feud fool you; everyone who knew him has questioned how the show got so off the mark with his portrayal. His Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? is one of the most influential B-movies of its generation and ushered in an era of horror films starring older actresses, but actually, Aldrich’s first important film was seven years earlier in ’55, the great noir flick, Kiss Me Deadly, which almost officially brought the noir genre to a close. He would go on to make a number of solid genre films: Flight of The Phoenix, Too Late the Hero, and even the ahead-of-its-time lesbian film The Killing of Sister George. But it’s his two great, swinging-dick, fun-loving, box-office-smash “macho-pieces” he will be remembered for (at least by me), The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard.
Shot in beautiful Oregon by Aldrich’s usual cinematographer in the '70s, Joseph Biroc (whose resume goes far back, with his first credited gig as a cinematographer on It’s A Wonderful Life), the film feels as authentic as any of the period's Depression films. The trains, the sets, the costumes, and the performances all feel perfectly lived in (though Carradine can over push sometimes). Interestingly, Emperor of the North wasn’t a big hit like his other two big bad boys movies, but time and home viewing have turned it into a sorta cult film with a tough-as-hell reputation. And as the television show Feud looks like it will have a long shelf life, let this movie be the actual representation of the great Robert Aldrich.