Emperor of the North Pole (1973)

Emperor of the North Pole (1973), directed by Robert Aldrich.

Aka Emperor of the North.

A quintessential "tough guy" film by one of the masters of the genre. It is part of the 1970s film fascination with the 1930s.

The brutal tone is established early when we see Ernest Borgnine -- as a railroad conductor who will not allow any hobos on his train -- smash a man in the head with a large steel hammer. He falls and is torn apart under the train.

The steel sledge is Shack's favorite weapon but he also uses a chain, live steam, and a heavy metal pin on a rope, bouncing under the train to clear out hidden riders.

He is challenged by legendary hobo "A-No.1" -- Lee Marvin -- who will ride the train no matter what. Both hobos and the yard men are excited to see Shack taken down and there is betting up and down by the line.

Keith Carradine complicates matters as a young loud-mouthed and treacherous wannabe hobo who keeps getting in the way. This is another common feature of the tough guy formula: age's revenge on youth. The film is a sort of counter-reaction to the "greening of America" promise of young people taking over and leading the way. Not yet: old men still rule. Says A-No.1: "You had the juice, kid, but not the heart".

Like a modern superhero film, the climax is a big beat-down between A-No.1 and Shack. Chain, axe, the works.

Many familiar faces in the supporting cast. As always with train films the stunts look extra dangerous. The stars do many of their own stunts as if they were born to it. As with Frankenheimer's The Train (1964) we see a lot of real train mechanisms and yard operations. Something I had never seen before: the locomotive has a sand dispenser to apply grit to the tracks for traction. As for when some clever hobo has greased the rail on a slope to get the train to stop.

Watching this it first occurred to me that Ernest Borgnine can be scary as hell, but his enraged staring pop-eyes are also kind of cartoonish. How does that fit into the action thriller? We have other explicitly comic bits: stealing chickens and turkeys, invading a river group baptism.

Filmed in Oregon in the same locations as Buster Keaton's train film, The General (1926).

The title is a self-deprecating joke: king of the hobos is a worthless position, like being emperor of the north pole.

Aldrich had directed Lee Marvin twice before: Attack (1956) and The Dirty Dozen (1967). He directed Ernest Borgnine in six films, including The Flight of the Phoenix (1965).

Photographed by Joseph F. Biroc. Score by Frank De Vol; I would have guessed Lalo Schifrin.

Available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time. The image quality is very good, occasionally excellent.

The commentary track is by a film scholar who, like a lot of academics, speaks in declarations.