January 12, 2016
“1933, the height of the Great Depression. Hoboes roamed the land; riding the rails in a desperate search for jobs. Spurned by society, unwanted and homeless, they became a breed apart. Nomads who scorned the law and enforced their own. Dedicated to their destruction was the Railroad Man who stood between them and their only source of survival — The Trains.” – opening scroll of Emperor of the North
In Emperor of the North (1973) the Hobo and the Railroad Man are respective avatars of chaos and order, bloody abstractions who engage in a near-wordless duel to the death on a train rumbling through the Pacific Northwest. They have no back stories or personal motivation, they simply fight because it is in their nature, and the other one is there. Though the film is set in 1933 during the Depression, the story seems to take place outside history on a plane of pure hatred. Director Robert Aldrich expertly channels this hate in an elemental chase film in which stars Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin tear out chunks of each other’s flesh to perpetuate their mutually solitary ways of life. It was released last year on a pristine-looking Blu-ray from Twilight Time.
Originally titled The Emperor of the North Pole, the film had been developed by Sam Peckinpah and screenwriter Christopher Knopf for three years. Knopf was interested in the story of Leon Ray Livingston, a turn-of-the-century hobo who wrote a series of memoirs under the pseudonym “A-No. 1″, including From Coast to Coast with Jack London (1917), a remembrance of his tramping with the young author published after London’s death. This became one of the source texts for the script. Knopf’s screenplay is a streamlined machine that pits A-No.1 (Lee Marvin) against a militantly anti-hobo train engineer named Shack (Ernest Borgnine). Shack is known for never allowing a tramp to successfully complete a journey on one of his cars, thanks to a series of gruesome weapons including ball-peen hammers and lead pipes. A-No. 1 announces that he will ride Shack’s train, Number 19, all the way to Portland, OR. An uninvited guest appears in the person of the hobo-initiate Cigaret (Keith Carradine), which was Jack London’s moniker from his tramping days. Cigaret is a spindly hot-head who A-No. 1 reluctantly takes under his wing, until he realizes that wing is being burned off. Shack, A-No.1, and Cigaret are then involved in a pitched battle as they ride the iron horse into the northwest.
Producer Kenneth Hyman pulled the project away from Paramount and Peckinpah in 1971, and brought it to Aldrich and Twentieth Century Fox. Hyman had successfully worked with Aldrich on The Dirty Dozen a few years previously. Peckinpah wrote to Aldrich that, “I cannot say that I am happy about not doing it but I can say that I’m very happy that you are in charge. I have been a devoted fan of your pictures over the years and I feel that my adopted baby is in very good hands.” (quoted in What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich?, by Alain Silver). Aldrich wouldn’t quite return the compliment. He said, “I think Peckinpah’s a fine director. I don’t think he’s as good as I am, but he’s a sensational director.”
Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin seem like permanent parts of the landscape, hatchet-faced phantoms doing battle between Railroad Man and Hobo for all eternity. Borgnine’s Shack is wound as tight as his trusty stopwatch, from his death-rictus grin to his face-stompin’ boots. He is a Fascist figure whose role is to keep the trains running on time. As described in his autobiography, Borgnine “developed a character based on the actor Jack Elam, who I’d worked with on Vera Cruz and Hannie Caulder. Jack was walleyed. Imitating him, I tried to keep one eye looking straight ahead and the other eye down on the ground.” This explains how pop-eyed he looks throughout the movie, as if his pupils were straining to escape his sockets. But the technique is appropriate for Shack’s high strung violence, his eyes looking to attack as much as the rest of his body.
A-No.1 is an equally tough S.O.B (he knocks a child out with a live chicken), though he has brief flashes of humanity, as when he deigns to teach Cigaret a few tricks of the hobo trade, like how slathering oil on the tracks can delay a train’s departure. These moments of openness swiftly close once any shred of his independence is being encroached upon, at which point he will disappear in the foliage, having hidey-holes constructed all around the country. He’s less a community hobo organizer than a paranoid separatist militiaman, perpetually concerned about any and all impingements on his freedom, regardless of how necessary. He dumps friends as easily as he downs a beer. Christopher Knopf spoke with Marvin before the shoot, and recalled, “I met Marvin in Bob [Aldrich’s] office on the Fox lot before filming began on location. There was that squint in his eyes and the so familiar baritone voice as he held court, dissecting his role. ‘The guy’s a philosopher, a disciple of Kant’s metaphysics and ethics, right?’ I nodded. ‘Bullshit.’ The man was already in character.”
Aldrich and his regular DP Joseph Biroc shot the film on location on the Oregon, Pacific and Eastern Railway (OP&E). The basic division of the frame is Borgnine in high angle, and A-No.1 coming in low, as Shack is constantly on lookout perches, while A-No.1 is crawling into tubes or hanging onto the undercarriage. There is a necessary balance here, and though they barely exchange ten words to each other, both men understand the essential role they are playing in this drama, and an unspoken respect goes along with this understanding. What A-No.1 cannot respect is Cigaret’s unbalancing presence. The jittery Cigaret gets bored with A-No.1′s lessons and starts improvising bum techniques, risking A-No.1′s life in the process. Cigaret is disrupting the natural process of Hobo vs. Railroad Man. For A-No.1, there is no bigger insult than, “Kid, you’ve got no class.” Class equals tradition, and Cigaret is not honoring the tradition of the hobo and engineer beating each other to death.
The trains would be running 25-30 miles an hour, and Aldrich had Borgnine and Marvin running up and down the roofs of the trains during their epic final fight, in which the two battered icons break each other’s bones with axe handles and two-by-fours. The autumnal greens and browns of the Oregon forest are a fecund backdrop to a life-draining fight, one which seems to give Shack and A-No.1 a euphoric high. These two extremists have never been happier than to be stuck in a duel on a moving train, their mouths bleeding and their knees buckling, their whole way of life on the line.