To quote Homer Simpson, “Here comes Lee Marvin! Thank God! He’s always drunk and violent”. In Emperor of the North he certainly lives up to this billing, playing a drunk and violent hobo. The first time I ever saw this film I was completely blindsided as it started with possibly the cheesiest ballad ever recorded, “A man and a train”, where the singer lists all the way that a locomotive and a man differ. This accompanies the opening credits showing the stunning landscape of the American North-West. The tone switches suddenly though as a drifter hitching a ride a the train is brutally murdered by getting a sledgehammer to the side of the head, before being tossed from the carriage and getting cut in half under its wheels. Things only get more brutal from this point on.
The film is set in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression. Nationwide mass unemployment has created a new underclass of hoboes who make their way across the country living off their wits and using the rail network to get about illegally. The train operators are naturally unhappy about people riding on their trains for free so do everything they can to discourage this. Lee Marvin plays a hobo who goes by the name, A-No. 1 who decides that he will ride the No 19 train all the way to Portland. His fellow hoboes are sceptical as the No 19 is run by Shack, played by Ernest Borgnine, a viscous train conductor who has vowed to prevent anyone riding for free. The film then becomes a battle of wills and fists between these two men as they attempt to beat each other. A-No. 1 is hindered in his task by a young wannabe hobo played by Keith Carradine who decides to accompany him.
One of the things I love about Emperor of the North is that it’s storytelling at its most straightforward. There are no sub-plots or diversions. The characters don’t change or learn things about themselves. They just play out their allotted roles as A-No. 1 attempts to ride the train, while Shack tries to stop him any way he can.
A point worth noting is that none of the characters have proper names, they either go by nicknames e.g. A-No. 1, “The Shack”, or simply job titles that describe their duties e.g. a Policeman, the Yard Manager. This predates Walter Hill’s, “The Driver” which uses a similar trick, by a good few years. Apparently this was a deliberate decision by the director Robert Aldrich as the characters were meant to be symbolic, with Shack representing the company or the establishment, A-No.1 the anti-establishment and Cigaret, modern youth. It also shows how dispensable human life can become during times of economic collapse. Early on there is a brief scene where Lee Marvin explains to his young companion that if he is caught by the authorities he won’t go to prison. Instead it’s more likely that the sheriff will kill him and pocket the two dollars the state pays to keep him locked up.
Lee Marvin, as always, excels as these morally dubious kind of characters and his A-No.1 is certainly not the films obvious hero. Early on he almost causes a train collision that would certainly have killed dozens of people. At no point is he bothered by the consequences of his actions, only by riding the train for free. Of course the protagonist is only ever as good as the villain and Ernest Borgnine certainly gives it his all here. His character Shack or “The Shack” is almost evil incarnate; brutal, cunning, vicious and proof that despite what your parents might tell you, bullies are not always cowards. For someone who largely knows Borgnine from his many roles playing good guys, this performance is a revelation.
America has always had an excellent record at making this kind of mythic film and while Emperor of the North isn’t the most well-known it’s certainly amongst the best.
Here is a trailer (I couldn’t find the original on YouTube so this is a re-edited one):