There’s nothing quite like watching two old adversarial warhorses readying the battlefield for one, final sanguine confrontation. And that’s exactly what happens when The Shack at last matches wits and weaponry against A#1 in Robert Aldrich’s violent 1973 Depression drama EMPEROR OF THE NORTH, now on limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.
It’s 1933, and this clash of wills pits a psychopathic railroader against a nonconformist ‘bo (hobo, to you). The script, by Christopher Knopf, was actually based upon Jack London sources, notably the author’s 1907 memoir The Road, and From Coast to Coast with Jack London (a factual account by A-No-1, the pen name of writer Leon Ray Livingston). I can only further imagine Jim Thompson smiling approvingly at this, a reluctant camaraderie picture that ends more bloody than buddy. By journey’s end, it’s the pic’s adaptation of Erich von Stroheim’s mantra (“life is filth”) that provides EMPEROR OF THE NORTH with its nasty charm. Youth, it turns out, cannot be trusted in the modern world, especially if it’s Keith Carradine (as Cigaret, London’s name during his ‘bo days). As for The Shack and A#1, you can’t dream up a better couple of mortal enemies than Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin.
The story is played out against the picturesque Oregon landscape (it was mostly filmed in Cottage Grove), its plethora of rich greens and blues being splattered by vagrant hemoglobin. The Shack lives for finding freeloaders on Number 19 (“his” train), and even occasionally lays lures for the unfortunate homeless travelers. The follow-up is his torturing and ultimately either disfiguring or murdering them, much to the veiled satisfaction of the fat-cat big-city railroad suits. Indeed, it’s doubtful that no one can best the vicious, savage Shack, with the possible exception of Ethel Merman. Aldrich called the movie the absolute parable of the (then-current) establishment vs. the anti-establishment populist ideology.
Equaling The Shack’s monstrous reputation is A#1’s ability to triumph over the elements, becoming a Robin Hood to the society of displaced poor sprawled across America. Marvin is initially seen brazenly swinging a huge cock (well, a stolen chicken, but the unsubtle analogy is nevertheless an effective visual pun). It’s inevitable that Shack and A#! should/will match up. When the gauntlet challenge is met – that A#1 will defiantly ride Number 19 – the result becomes an unofficial wildfire betting contest between railroad workers and the homeless on who will emerge victorious.
Suffice to say that Borgnine and Marvin are superb in the leads. They had become quite used to each other’s vibes by this time, having costarred opposite in more than a half-dozen movies and TV episodes (most prominently in Andre De Toth’s The Stranger Wore a Gun, John Sturges’s Bad Day at Black Rock and Richard Fleischer’s Violent Saturday). Recently, they had both worked for Aldrich in The Dirty Dozen. Aldrich loved each actor with a passion, and pulls out the stops full-throttle (to coin RR lingo) in order to give them 110% of celluloid testosterone. Marvin had previously appeared in the director’s brilliant 1955 war drama Attack! Borgnine went back a year earlier, making his Aldrich debut in Vera Cruz. While it’s Marvin who is top-billed, EMPEROR OF THE NORTH is Ernest Borgnine’s movie, arguably his best role since Marty. Aldrich himself was going great blazes in the 1970s with such triumphs as Ulzana’s Raid and such later efforts as The Longest Yard, Hustle and Twilight’s Last Gleaming (the latter two of which I consider masterpieces).
Yet, EMPEROR OF THE NORTH had some start-up problems, director-wise. Originally Martin Ritt was assigned to the picture, but was quickly fired. Sam Peckinpah was next on-board, but his salary demands were such that Fox cut him loose. Aldrich was the third person handed the project and he took the bit, bringing along other Dirty Dozen alumnus, including producer Kenneth Hyman, editor Michael Luciano and composer Frank DeVol (the latter pair being longtime Aldrich collaborators).
Keith Carradine is slither-perfect as the self-supposed successor to A#1 (or A#1 and a half), the eager, courageous underling, determined to be schooled in the art of hobo-ing by the veteran Marvin. But as we and the cast learn, there’s a difference between being a bum and being bummy, between being A#1 and an A#1 A-Hole. As Marvin memorably decrees, “You had the juice, kid, but not the heart, and they go together.”
And speaking of the cast, one couldn’t ask for a better supporting roster of grizzled thesps than Simon Oakland, Charles Tyner, Malcolm Atterbury (his final screen performance), Harry Caesar, Hal Baylor, Joe Di Reda, Liam Dunn, Robert Foulk, Sid Haig, Vic Tayback, Lance Henriksen, Harry Hickox, and, last but not least, Elisha Cook, Jr..
The 1970s seemed to take particular pleasure in rose-coloring the Depression era; although, upon closer inspection, it really wasn’t rose-colored, but rather the crimson tint of a burst blood vessel in the retina. The 1970s version of the 1930s transcended The Bad Old Days; they were way worse.
That said, like a vintage wine, EMPEROR OF THE NORTH improves with age. That’s not to say there aren’t any problems. It does seem to go on a bit too long (a full two hours). There seem to be reels of prep/filler waiting for that climactic onslaught, made sore thumb obvious by lengthy periods during which neither of the two leads appear. But like Frankenstein and the Wolfman, King Kong and Godzilla, or, if one wishes to stick to the Aldrich universe, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, once they connect, to coin the current vernacular, “It’s on!”
One cringe-worthy red flag pops up early – in fact, during the credits. While the DeVol score is a reasonable and appropriate one, the asinine title tune is one step away from a Mel Brooks parody. As ably sung by the great Marty Robbins, Hal David’s ridiculous ditty contains some of cinema’s all-time champion ludicrous lyrics. As Number 19 chugs through the countryside, we are treated to the likes of “A man and a train. A train and a man. A man’s not a train, a train’s not a man.” While anatomically correct, it’s certainly information that the majority of viewers were probably painfully aware of. True, it follows David’s description of the earlier title song to the brothel movie A House is Not a Home (“A house is not a home, a home is not a house…” or something…), but that, at least made more sense. Then again, this is the same guy who warned us about raindrops fallin’ on your head.
I can personally verify that this song had a detrimental effect on a special premiere crowd in 1973, because I was there. At the time, I was a film student at NYU, and, as was the case, the major studios would sneak their upcoming releases for us at closed screenings in the old Bleecker Street Cinema. As soon as this song began, one group of cinema studies louts started to titter uncontrollably while the humorless production contingent simply got up en masse and exited. Sad to say, that, by the picture’s conclusion, there were only about seventeen or so folks remaining, including myself, Ric Menello and a Fox rep, who had fallen asleep. While Menello and I relished many moments of this new Aldrich extravaganza, the response of this “sneak” pretty much mirrored the actual release; EMPEROR OF THE NORTH quickly melted away in the wake of the happier 1930s pic The Sting and that head-spinnin’ Exorcist.
At the sneak unspooling, the picture was called Emperor of the North Pole, a genuine ‘bo term, implying that if one survived to ascend to that title that they would have the honor of being the supreme ruler over nothing; what a cynical bunch. Even though this moniker’s origin is often referred to throughout the course of the narrative, Fox changed the title to EMPEROR OF THE NORTH in the fear that many parents might consider it a Christmas picture. Oy vey!
I can say without hesitation that if you are a fan of 1970s movies, Robert Aldrich, Lee Marvin or Ernest Borgnine, you should immediately take measure to add this title to your library. It is a limited edition (of 3000), and once they’re gone, that’s it, pal. I also must state that the print we saw in 1973 was a grainy mess, with orange-colored flesh tones, truly an ugly-looking movie. Not the case with this Twilight Time Blu-Ray. Joe Biroc’s saturated location camerawork looks splendidly lush, with proper skin pigmentation and accurate flora and fauna photosynthesis. Crystal-clear, too. The mono audio is crisp and fine and includes the IST option (at your own peril). There’s also the trailer/TV spots (“from the…makers of The Dirty Dozen!”) and commentary by film historian Dana Polan.
I originally screened this as part of a Twilight Time double-feature, pairing it with Hard Times, another excellent 1970s movie about them post-Black Tuesday days. When the lights came up, one of our guests quietly rose, shook her head and remarked, “Now I know why they called it the Great Depression.” I subsequently ran it with Bill Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road, which seemed to work better. So you might want to consider a partial train theme on a two-fer, although probably not The Harvey Girls.
EMPEROR OF THE NORTH. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment. CAT # TWILIGHT171-BR. SRP: $29.95.
Limited Edition of 3000, available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment: www.screenarchives.com