Tuesday 24 January 2017

Emperor of the North Pole (1973)

Director: Robert Aldrich
Writer: Christopher Knopf
Stars: Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and Keith Carradine

Index: 2017 Centennials.

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.

As such a cast might suggest, the script plays on a clash of ideologies between the old, as portrayed by the massively experienced double act of Marvin and Borgnine, and the young, in the form of Keith Carradine, appearing not only in his first starring role but the first that was given a name. He’s Cigaret, which is more than the obvious step up from ‘Cowboy’ or ‘The Young Gunfighter’ of his previous films, because Cigaret happens to be one of the tramp names used by novelist Jack London when he lived on the road around 1894, the year in which he spent thirty days in the Erie County Penitentiary for vagrancy. London is important here, as the script, by Christopher Knopf, is based in part on The Road, the memoir London wrote about that period of his life, and From Coast to Coast with Jack London by Leon Ray Livingston, a famous hobo known within that community as A-No.1. London tracked him down and, in the words of Livingston, during that period was ‘faithfully acting the role of the dog who adopted his master.’

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.
If there’s conflict between the veteran A-No.1 and the rookie Cigaret, there’s a lot more between the hoboes and the Shack, which is the name of Borgnine’s character. He’s the conductor of the No. 19 and it’s his train, as far as he’s concerned; he’ll be damned if he lets a hobo take advantage of his run. He won’t politely ask them to disembark at the next stop and he won’t simply throw them off either; we know what he does to unwelcome guests because we watched him dispose of one ahead of the opening credits. The ‘goddamn ’bo’ slips on after the train pauses for water and settles down in between cars with a sandwich; the Shack finds him and sends him under the wheels with a well aimed sledgehammer. The train keeps a rollin’ to display the body on the tracks behind it, literally cut in two by the wheels. And the Shack grins, because he’s not just good at what he does; he really enjoys his work. ‘He’s gonna be a mean son of a bitch now,’ says one of his men, after seeing A-No.1’s fire. ‘What was he before?’ replies another.

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.
As a two hour film, this often moves with the pace of the steam trains that we follow. In the film’s theme tune, Marty Robbins may be singing about a man and a train trying to run as fast as they can, but the pace of these engines seems rather relaxed to me in my 21st century world of speed. I appreciate the stuntwork done on top, underneath and around the train by the lead actors, but they aren’t going too quickly even when the Shack has the engineer ‘highball it out of the yard’. That doesn’t mean that it’s boring, for the scenes at that point are shot in early morning fog with a mail train due and the tension is palpable. But the train just keeps on rollin’ as the action unfolds on it, with chains, spikes and two by fours, not to mention an axe, all used in the battle to be ‘emperor of the North Pole’, which, to hoboes, means being in charge of a situation that gains you nothing but a title; A-No.1 puts his life on the line for nothing but bragging rights, even if those betting on him may strike it rich in the process.

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!
As you may have noticed, all those names are male. There are almost no women in this testosterone-fuelled film at all. Only Diane Dye is credited, in her one and only big screen appearance, and then simply as ‘Girl in Water’. Surely we find A-No.1 preparing for baptism in a river because the church is offering celebratory food, but it prompts a clever scene in which the pastor asks him if he has sinned, all while he’s staring goggle-eyed at the breasts of the girl in front of him through her wet and transparent baptismal gown. Most of the great scenes go to Borgnine, though, even if Marvin is clearly the lead. I’ve always enjoyed watching him play villains because he can hate more effectively than most actors of his era. He’s blistering here, introduced as brutal but given a little more depth as the picture runs on. He’s an archetype, just as Marvin and Carradine are, but these aren’t simple good guy vs. bad guy roles. Cigaret is out of his depth immediately but the other two are worthy opponents unable to escape their positions in life.

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.
Emperor of the North Pole seems a little dated today, not because it’s a period piece but because it has that seventies movie feel, but it’s a strong drama that isn’t as simple as it might play at first glance. Marvin is magnificent in the lead, a couple of decades into a solid career with only a dozen movies left. I had the impression that his career was fading at this point but he’s at the top of his game here and he had The Klansman, The Big Red One and The Delta Force still to come. Carradine is annoying, but appropriately so, at the other end of his career; his Oscar was only three years away but that was for a song, I’m Easy from Nashville, rather than an acting performance. I knew the Carradines were an acting dynasty like a junior version of the Barrymores, but it was always his brother David who comes to mind when I hear the name; incidentally, he was riding the rails only a year earlier in Boxcar Bertha, made for Roger Corman. Yet Keith really rocked the seventies, with a thoroughly interesting set of well chosen pictures.

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.
While I first saw him in Airwolf, I soon saw him in many of these films on British television: The Flight of the Phoenix, The Dirty Dozen and Ice Station Zebra. In between were other varied pictures, such as Barabbas, The Oscar and The Wild Bunch, with Borgnine lower in the credits or part of an ensemble cast. By the time the seventies arrived, he was thoroughly recognisable but still able to play the gamut of roles, a much wider range than most of his peers. What’s more, he kept on going. If you recall, Lee Marvin started out in the same year as Borgnine and he acted up until his death at 63, but that was in 1987. Borgnine still had 44 feature films left in him, not to mention a string of TV movies and a host of roles in TV shows. He also kept acting until he died, in 2012 at the ripe old age of 95. Many will know him for movies made a decade after Lee Marvin died, like Gattaca, or even two decades, like RED. He nearly got to celebrate his centennial with us, but we can celebrate for him. Thanks for seven decades of movies, Ermes Effron Borgnino!

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