Director: Robert Aldrich
Writer: Christopher Knopf
Stars: Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and Keith Carradine
Thus far, every one of the film luminaries whose lives and careers I’ve been celebrating on what would have been their hundredth birthdays is someone I discovered through watching movies. Some I first saw when I was a kid but others not until later. However, 24th January marks the centennial of an actor I grew up watching on television. It’s Ernest Borgnine, an Academy Award-winning actor whom I initially discovered playing Dominic Santini in the mid-eighties action show, Airwolf (hilariously, my grandkids may have first encountered him on television too, in the even cheesier part of Mermaid Man in SpongeBob SquarePants). Of course, as time went on, I realised that he had a little bit more of a resume than backing up Jan-Michael Vincent on primetime TV. His Oscar was for Marty in 1955, but I caught later films first, pictures like The Black Hole, The Dirty Dozen and Escape from New York. Over time, I’d see him over and over, in films as varied as Johnny Guitar, The Catered Affair and The Devil’s Rain. He was certainly versatile!
To remember his work, I selected Emperor of the North Pole, later released as simply Emperor of the North, for a few reasons. One was that he plays the villain of the piece, the sadistic conductor of a depression-era steam train, who uses brutal means to kick off any hoboes who think they can ride it for free. Another is that his co-star, playing one such hobo, is Lee Marvin, another favourite of mine and another Academy Award-winner (for Cat Ballou); Borgnine and Marvin made six pictures together; the others being The Stranger Wore a Gun, Violent Saturday, Bad Day at Black Rock, The Dirty Dozen and its made for TV sequel, The Dirty Dozen: Next Mission. The setting was a bonus too, because subcultures are one of my favourite subjects and this film promised to delve a little into the world of hoboes, of which I’ve read a little. And the cast includes such favourites as Simon Oakland, Elisha Cook, Jr., Sid Haig and, in an uncredited role so deep that I couldn’t find him anywhere in the movie, a young Lance Henriksen.
In many ways, that’s precisely what happens here, except that Carradine’s character is far less sympathetic than London probably was in real life. In Emperor of the North Pole, Marvin plays A-No.1, an aging hobo who slips onto the No. 19 steam train heading north to Portland. He seems to know his stuff: he acquired a live chicken before we first meet him and he has to fight off three youths to keep it; he escapes by climbing into an empty freight car on the No. 19 without being noticed, settling down for the duration. The catch is that Cigaret follows him, abandoning his younger colleagues in the process; his lack of skill means that he’s noticed before he even makes it in and the hoboes are promptly locked inside. A-No.1 has to set fire to the back of the car, which is made of wood and filled with bales of hay for animals, so that he can break through the sides of it to escape from his escape, live chicken and all. But Cigaret knows talent when he sees it, so he sticks to A-No.1 like glue, as often as the older man tries to shake him off.
The script follows two battles. One is the war between A-No.1 and the Shack, after the former takes on the challenge of riding the No. 19 all the way to Portland, and the other is the battle between A-No.1 and his young stalker, Cigaret. I’d argue that both were parallels to what was going on at the time, something that seems fundamental in a story that is otherwise about a highly personal war between two men who have never previously met. London and Livingston wrote about their travels in 1894, but Knopf takes their work and updates them to 1933, the heart of the Great Depression, when the unemployment rate was peaking at 25%. We’ve seen more personal stories from this era often enough, in movies like The Grapes of Wrath, but it’s the abstractions of the era which stand out best. Emperor of the North Pole is a truer abstraction than even Bonnie and Clyde, given that A-No.1 has to face off against the establishment that brought him down, personified by the Shack, and dangerous but immature youth, in the form of Cigaret.
Marvin struggles through, Borgnine rages and Carradine annoys, in a voice that seems utterly wrong but isn’t really; it neatly adds to his ability to annoy us just as he annoys A-No.1 or whoever else he’s interacting with. It helps that those supporting members of the cast are stellar, even if many are the sort of actors you recognise but can’t name. The most prominent of them is surely Charles Tyner, who plays the brakeman on the train, Cracker by name. Many will know him from Cool Hand Luke or The Longest Yard, but he made a lot of films memorable, including this one. One of the key yardmen is Vic Tayback, who won two Golden Globes for his role as Mel, the owner of the diner in the TV show, Alice, reprising his role from the film, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Accomplished scene stealer Simon Oakland plays a cop who chases A-No.1 after he steals a turkey from a rail yard, ending up in a scene that feels rather like something that Quentin Tarantino might have written. Of course, director Robert Aldrich is hardly a nobody either!
I should add here that it’s not all grue. The scene with Simon Oakland, frankly hilarious in Kolchak: The Night Stalker, is far from the only moment of comedy on offer and there are many light hearted scenes in and amongst the suspense. I especially appreciated the yardmen, people who have jobs but know that they could be replaced in a heartbeat, so they work alongside a man they don’t like or agree with, even if they respect his authority like professionals; the scenes in the yards are full of fascinating dialogue. This never delves as deeply as I had hoped into hobo culture, but Knopf does gift us with some of that and also some of what it means to be a yardman. When A-No.1 is talked into taking the No. 19 to Portland, the announcement is scratched onto a water tower at the depot. It’s no spoiler to say that the hoboes are bounced off the train but a continued announcement on a fresh tower further up the line tells everyone, yardmen and hoboes both, that they’ve caught up and it’s all back on again.
But I’ll leave this with Ernest Borgnine, the snarling heart of the picture. He started late, beginning his screen career at 34 in 1951, the same year as Lee Marvin but in different pictures. His first role was, of all things, in yellowface, as Hu Chang, the owner of the Green Dragon gambling club in China Corsair, but it didn’t take long for him to graduate to more important films. Two years later, he had a notable role in From Here to Eternity and another in the highly underrated Johnny Guitar. Two more and he’d win an Oscar for playing Marty the lovable Bronx butcher in a year that also saw him appear in Bad Day at Black Rock and Violent Saturday, as an Amish farmer. Maybe his career didn’t initially maintain the levels it should have after such a promising start, but he gave more memorable performances in movie after movie. The mid-sixties saw his star rise again, partly because he landed the lead in the popular TV show, McHale’s Navy, which was adapted to the big screen in 1964, but partly because of a string of feature hits too.