If you’re looking for a realistic depiction of the violent struggle between itinerant boxcar riders and the railroad men who fought to throw them off by any means during the Great Depression, you’ve come to the wrong place. However, if you’re interested in an allegorical fable about a legendary Hobo named A No. 1 who rode the rails all across the US, and an even more legendary “bull” who would happily murder anyone who tries to ride the rails for free, then you’re in for a Paul Bunyon style treat!
Robert Aldrich created his own niche in 60s and 70s renegade cinema by staying within the studio parameters while still churning out subversive storylines and characters with counter-culture themes. His tastes ran from outright kitsch (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?), satire (Kiss Me Deadly), and comedy (The Longest Yard) to muscular testosterone-fests (The Dirty Dozen), always keeping the idea that audiences need to be entertained as his front-and-center agenda.
Emperor of the North is just one of those swinging dick films that also strays into satire and fantasy. And always, there’s the gallows-humor that was an earmark of his best work.
Set in the darkest days of the Depression, when unemployment and homelessness were at an all-time high, and men drifted away from their families to strike out west in the hopes of finding work, Emperor of the North is a man’s man tale about being the first, the best, being number one at something. Anything. Here, it’s being number one at either riding the rails, or throwing those who attempt the feat, off.
Shack (a superb Ernest Borgnine) is a sadistic, inhuman railroad conductor whose only goal in life is to ensure no one rides his freight train for free. He patrols his cars like a paranoid sheik protecting his harem. His tools are metal pins, crowbars and sledgehammers. This is not a man who just wants to throw freeloaders off his fast moving engine, he wants to maim or kill them in the process. Even his engineers and mechanics fear and loathe him. After several examples of his violent predilection, we meet A-Number-One, the adopted moniker of hobo Lee Marvin, a dark, soot and grease covered malignancy whose only mission is to ride Shack’s train all the way down the line. He becomes the unlikely tutor to Cigarette, young Keith Carradine as a big-talking kid who wants to follow in Marvin’s footprints. All he ends up doing is irritating the old train veteran and getting himself into vulnerable positions.
And so the cat-and-mouse game is on; with other hobos laying wagers as to whether A-Number-One can break the record before Shack breaks his back. Writing on watertowers along the route, A-Number-One announces to the public everytime he gets further along. Several times he’s confronted by Shack, and these are some perilous encounters, from hanging off the underside of a train car while Shack drops a metal pin attached to a cable between the cars so it clatters, bangs and caroms off the gravel smacking into the barely conscious passenger, to bare-fisted brawls on the top of the train cars.
Finally comes the epic battle, which is a knock-down, drag-out brawl between these two driven man, that – besides the very fake red blood – is a pretty daringly choreographed white knuckler. Will A-Number-One survive to ride the engine all the way down the line? Will Shack thwart him and in fact, risk his own life for some vain personal goal? If you’re up for a mythic and thoroughly testosterone fueled pissing contest, then you’ll enjoy Emperor of the North. If not, pass on down the line.