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.