If you could only use one word to describe the films of Robert Aldrich, “masculine” might fit the bill. Many of his movies films are big, brassy, swaggering affairs filled to the brim with machismo; tales of men doing physical and/or psychological battle with other men to prove their manhood. This is the man who gave us Vera Cruz, The Dirty Dozen, The Flight of the Phoenix and The Longest Yard. Even when his films focused on women – he gave us the beloved horror/thrillers Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte – his direction retained that brawny, aggressive quality.
Aldrich's 1973 thriller Emperor of the North might just be the most enthusiastically masculine movie of the director's career. At a glance, the film looks like an issue movie; an examination of the challenges faced by homeless men of the Depression Era. In reality, it's a cartoon version of the real-life tensions between hobos and train conductors; a two-hour game of one-upmanship between three colorful actors who have been given free reign to bring as much ham to the table as they desire.
The film's tone is effectively established within the first five minutes. First, we have a gloriously corny (but completely sincere) song by Marty Robbins, who patiently explains the differences between a man and a train. An excerpt:
A man and train,
A train and a man,
They both try to run as far and as fast as they can,
But a man's not a train,
And a train's not a man,
A man can do things that a train never can.
Then, we're treated to a scene in which an aging hobo catches a ride on a moving train. Unfortunately, the hobo has climbed aboard the #19, which is run by the ruthless Shack (Ernest Borgnine, Escape from New York). Train conductors of the era generally didn't take kindly to hobos hitching free rides, but Shack's mercilessness makes most of his peers look kind-hearted. He hunts down the hobo, beats him with a hammer, kicks him off the train and then watches with glee as the #19 slices the poor man in half.
Shack is something of a legendary villain in the hobo community, and all who have tried to best him have failed. However, a grizzled old hobo named A-No. 1 (Lee Marvin, The Big Red One) is convinced that he's got what it takes to make a fool out of Shack. He openly declares that he plans to ride the #19 all the way from Somewhere, America to Portland, Oregon. There's just one kink in his plan: a pesky young hobo named Cigaret (Keith Carradine, Nashville) keeps following him everywhere, determined to prove that he can do everything the old man can do. So, A-No. 1 finds himself in hostile competition with Shack and in a begrudgingly friendly competition with the bratty Cigaret.
That's more or less all there is to it, as the film finds one way after another to place some combination of the three men in conflict with each other as the #19 barrels towards Oregon. At its best, the film attains an overheated absurdity that proves immensely entertaining: in one scene, Lee Marvin beats up three attackers with a live chicken (!), then continues carrying the chicken around with him and turns it into a multi-purpose problem-solving tool. The big climactic battle at the film's conclusion is another winner; a thunderstorm of a fight involving axes, chains and bulging eyes.
However, Aldrich and screenwriter Christopher Knopf don't place as much emphasis on characterization as they do on action, so the film has a tendency to sag during its moments of downtime. There's no real explanation given for why Borgnine's character likes murdering hobos so much, or why Marvin is so determined to ride this particular train, or why Carradine is so insistent on forcing Marvin to be his mentor. They're just doing these things because... well, because they're men, and men do what they want to do, and they do it better than any other man. Hell, yeah! The weak characterization also tends to lead to weak monologues, particularly the nonsensical bit of chest-thumping gibberish that plays out over the film's last scene.
Still, the film's best moments are plenty of fun, and the technical virtues help the clunkier moments go down easier. Joseph F. Biroc's cinematography is just gorgeous, taking full advantage of the dusty rural locations the film employs. Frank DeVol's score is an appropriately propulsive affair, anchored around some fairly strong melodic ideas. Aldrich's skills as an action director are consistently put to good use, and he's aided by Michael Luciano's crisp, clean editing. This isn't one of the director's better movies, but it's handsome, slick and entertaining in an empty-headed sort of way.
Emperor of the North
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 120 minutes
Release Year: 1973