Watching Emperor of the North, it’s hard to believe that Robert Aldrich was also capable of directing such high camp as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and The Killing of Sister George. Women only speak a couple of lines in this film, and are treated entirely as sex objects or background figures. Emperor of the North is all about men – and one of its strengths is that it depicts the unique word of certain men in such convincing detail.
The film is set in the Great Depression, a time when hobos rode the rails. Unemployed and forced to live outside of society, the hobos had their own culture with traditions and norms. As a rare man with a job, it’s a point of pride for train conductor Stack (Ernest Borgnine) that he takes his work seriously. Not only is he determined to prevent any hobos from riding his train, he’s willing to kill any who try. For No. 1 (Lee Marvin), a hobo famous amongst his kind, pride is something worth risking his life for. The stakes of this film are nothing more than a man hitching a ride on a train – but this may well mean a fight to the death.
No. 1’s plans are complicated by Cigaret (Keith Carradine), a young man new to being a hobo, who’s determined to make a name for himself. It’s through the interactions between the two –sometimes willingly given lessons on No. 1’s part, sometimes clumsy attempts at imitation on Cigaret’s– that we get many insights into the peculiarities of hobo life. How do you stop a train? Why wear a belt rather than suspenders? How hard should you fight to hang onto a turkey? The slang flows thick and fast; pay attention, and you might work out just what an Emperor of the North Pole (the film’s original title) is to a hobo. It probably means something different to you and me.
Aside from an action sequence set in early morning fog, which doesn’t quite look convincing, Emperor of the North is a well-made film. The trains could not have been easy to handle, but the scenes taking place on them feel believable. Some moments don’t even look especially safe. You may never have expected to be watching a film set in this world, but you’ll easily get drawn into it. Of course, if the time period has a particular appeal for you, definitely seek the film out.
And then there’s the actors. Carradine is appropriately annoying as the big-toothed, thick-skulled Cigaret, while Marvin is made for roles such as the taciturn yet charismatic No. 1. Borgnine is the standout, however; he makes Stack one of cinema’s ultimate sadists, petty and ferocious even in a goofy conductor’s hat.
The film culminates in a faceoff between Stack and No. 1 that has to be seen to be believed, one that’s a whole different kind of nasty to the Bette Davis/Joan Crawford conflict in Baby Jane. It’s to Aldrich’s credit that he could make such different kinds of films, and to this level of quality.