Most of the time when I’m skimming through the TV guide, I don’t find much that interests me. The shows and films listed are pretty generic “been there, done that” material. But there are those rare occasions when you stumble upon something that truly captures your attention and makes you say, “I’ve got to watch this.” I had such an experience several years ago when I happened across a film called Emperor of the North Pole (1973). The one-line summary provided in the TV guide read something like: “A crafty hobo outwits a tyrannical train conductor.” Already I knew that I would be watching this film based solely on that premise. I mean, it’s a movie centering on a hobo – a crafty hobo. How could I resist? But then I noticed the names of the two leads: Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine. I had just hit the jackpot. With two tough-guy actors of that caliber in the starring roles, I somehow knew that I wouldn’t be disappointed with this film…and I wasn’t.
The story takes place during the Great Depression, when times were tough for many. Among those affected by the times is a hobo named A no. 1 (possibly one of the greatest character names ever), played by Marvin. He lives alongside many other hobos, most of whom freely hitch rides on trains in order to get around. But there is a threat in the lives of the hobos in the form of train engineer Shack, played by Borgnine. Shack maintains an infamous reputation for beating or even killing any hobo that stows away on his locomotive. It’s said that no one has ever been able to hitch a ride on his train. A no. 1 takes it upon himself to face down the maniacal engineer in a battle of wills that stretches each man to his limit. Along the way, a younger hobo named Cigaret, played by Keith Carradine, joins this back-and-forth fight as A no. 1 reluctantly takes him under his wing.
Putting this film into any one category might be considered a chore, as it’s an odd mix of genres and tones. It could easily be called a period piece, an action/adventure film, a comedy, a kind of “road” film, and a modernized western all rolled into one. The tone fluctuates throughout as the somewhat peculiar premise plays out with complete seriousness on the part of the characters involved. The tonal shifts mainly manifest themselves in the mix of humor and violence that this film contains. The story plays out like a Quentin Tarantino film twenty years before he began making films. Some of the violence is gleefully brutal. At one point in the film, a character receives a hammer thrown right to his head, and when it connects, the audience feels it too. It’s the type of visceral violence that you rarely find in films of this era. But, as violent as it is, that moment is also hilariously funny because it’s so over-the-top. Scenes such as these walk a thin between the intense and the comedic and are certainly not for everyone. But regardless of taste, it’s safe to say that the combination of all these elements makes the movie a unique viewing experience.
While the story may seem simple, I think that there’s something further that can be read into it, which raises the dramatic stakes. More than a stand-off between two men, Emperor of the North Pole can easily be read as a tale of man vs. machine. Indeed, the character of Shack operates just as much like a machine as the locomotive he operates. His sole mission in life appears only to involve running his train and stopping anyone who gets in his way. Callous to the point of absurdity, Shack treats the hobos he encounters as if they aren’t even human beings, merely pests that have invaded his precious train. A no. 1’s quest to conquer the machine-like authority of the day becomes an example of the enduring human spirit. Although the theme of man vs. machine may be an old standby at this point, the elemental nature of the film allows it to resonate.
Emperor of the North Pole is, perhaps, one of the oddest films you’ll see about the Great Depression. But, of course, I mean that in the best way possible. Anyone who enjoys a gripping action/adventure film should find this one very satisfying. With two powerhouse performances from Marvin and Borgnine, the film is brimming with testosterone and plenty of yelling as well. Directed by Robert Aldrich, who also helmed The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard among others, Emperor of the North Pole is truly one “tough guy” film to seek out.