Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Robert Aldrich stages a two-hour brawl between Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin

Illustration for article titled Robert Aldrich stages a two-hour brawl between Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With Richard Gere playing a desperate derelict in Time Out Of Mind, and the excellent Heaven Knows What new to Blu-ray, we look back at other films about homelessness.

Emperor Of The North (1973)

A scrolling title card establishes the context: In 1933, at “the height of the Great Depression… Hoboes [roam] the land; riding the rails in a desperate search for jobs.” Hounding these car-hopping nomads is Shack (Ernest Borgnine), “the Railroad Man,” a brick-like brute who has dedicated himself to keeping vagrants off his train. The opening couple minutes, set to the corny tune “A Man And A Train” and featuring lingering overhead shots of black smoke, wide-open fields, and chugging-along cars, introduce an odd strain of romanticism. But director Robert Aldrich quickly gets down to business illustrating his movie’s fundamental savagery once Shack spots his first round of trespassers. The conductor takes a hammer to the head of one drifter devouring a sandwich in between cars; in the ensuing fall, the drifter’s body is sliced in half, and Shack grins. There is no relief from this level of brutality: Set entirely aboard trains, on the scruffy grounds near the tracks, or in ramshackle rail yards, Emperor Of The North immerses itself in a dog-eat-dog world in which men—some of them clever, some of them stupid, all of them dirt-poor—fight to the death for a spot on Shack’s train.


In short order, Shack meets his most formidable opponent, and his most ridiculous. After getting trapped in one of Shack’s cars, the cigar-chomping A No. 1 (Lee Marvin) has the wits to set the carriage on fire to enable escape, while the hopeless, overzealous Cigaret (a grating, baby-faced Keith Carradine) stands by doing nothing. (An expert spinner of tall tales, Cigaret later attempts to take credit for A No. 1’s feat of arson.) With this unheard-of, momentum-gaining survival under his belt, A No. 1 announces his intention to face-off against Shack for a second time; in one of Aldrich and screenwriter Christopher Knopf’s best world-building details, A No. 1 has someone scribble his intended route of free travel (“to Portland on the 19”—Shack’s train) on a water tower, as if he were part of some global-news horserace. Their battle begins on a morning shrouded in intense fog—a disorienting, nearly 20-minute sequence that can only truly be appreciated on a good 35mm print—and continues to escalate from there.

Carradine remains on hand throughout the movie, challenging A No. 1 and embodying Aldrich’s disillusioned view of the younger generation. The director gets in some ideological digs elsewhere, too: At one point, he cuts from A No. 1 asking Cigaret—“You any good at stealing?”—to a tight shot of a preacher leading a baptism. Aldrich’s more primal instincts, however, are what resonate here. He constructs character solely through face and action: Borgnine’s performance is so totally crazed (bulging eyes, contorted mouth) that Shack often appears on the verge of explosion, while Marvin strikes the perfect kind of jaded, seen-it-all demeanor that suggests a man with a rock-solid set of principles. And for a movie rooted in the Depression, Emperor depicts a community that attains a hauntingly out-of-time allure: It’s worth sitting through the closing credits not just for front-and-center character names like “A No. 1” and “Cigaret,” but for background gems like “Cracker,” “Girl In Water,” “Pokey Stiff,” and “Stew Bum.” The effect is a violent intensification of the here-and-now. A No. 1 and Shack will never build a life outside these tracks, so all they have are the tools (axes, chains, hammers) and the empty glory of this drawn-out brawl.

Availability: Emperor Of The North is available on DVD from Amazon, Netflix, and possibly your local video store/library.

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