Emperor of the North (1973)
By: Rip on December 19, 2010  | 
Bounty Films | All Regions, PAL | 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced) | English DD 2.0 | 115 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Robert Aldrich
Starring: Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Keith Carradine
Screenplay: Christopher Knopf
Country: USA
External Links
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Though not really a household name, the late Robert Aldrich was one of the finest producer/directors in American cinema. Whilst modern audiences may not be familiar with Aldrich, they are more than likely to have seen, or at least heard of, some of his films. After all, the man has given us such classic works as The Dirty Dozen, Kiss Me Deadly, The Flight Of The Phoenix, The Big Knife, The Killing Of Sister George, etc, as well as two of the most macabre films in horror, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Movies such as these have become cult titles over the years and so has one of his lesser seen films, Emperor Of The North, the subject of this review.

It's 1933 in Oregon, at the height of the Great Depression in America and we are introduced to a growing subculture in society at that time – the hobo. The hoboes have become a breed apart, developing their own rules and enforcing them, and a common practice shared amongst these hoboes was the free use of the country's railroad system. Hitching rides on freight trains, they would travel from place to place around the country in search of work or handouts. Standing forever in their way however were The Railroad Men – the conductors of these trains who would do whatever they could to keep the hoboes from riding for free. One such conductor is Shack (the inimitable Ernest Borgnine), who has a distinction not shared by his fellow conductors: he has managed to keep his train, Number 19, completely free of the hoboes, albeit by adopting the most cold-blooded of methods. And we, the audience, are witness to this method in one of the film's most memorable moments and one that takes place early in the proceedings.

Next, we meet a hobo who goes by the name of 'A#1' (played by the legendary Lee Marvin), who prides himself on being 'Emperor Of The North Pole' or in other words, the champion hobo amongst his brethren. When it comes to free rides, he's the undisputed master, as well as true believer and upholder of all unwritten hobo laws and customs. The only train he has yet to conquer, however, is Shack's Number 19 locomotive and he's determined to be the first hobo to do so. But matters are complicated for A#1 with the arrival of a grating young braggart hobo, Cigaret (a youthful Keith Carradine), who wants to ride the trains with A#1, but as the veteran tells him, "You got the juice, but you ain't got the heart" and that if he is to survive, he must listen and learn from the elder man. And so begins an unlikely partnership, as the pair repeatedly board, and are thrown from, train Number 19, leading to an unforgettable climax with Shack and A#1 battling it out on a moving flat train car.

Emperor Of The North powers along like the locomotive trains that star. Much of the film is made up of action scenes and they are beautifully realized by Robert Aldrich, with superb location cinematography and rapid fire editing. The various fight scenes aboard the trains are absolutely spectacular, made even more so by the fact that the actors are all doing their own stunts. The now famous climactic flat car brawl between Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin isn't regarded as one of cinema's greatest fight scenes for no reason. It's positively brutal and seems to go on forever, as the pair literally go hammer and tong with each other, wielding various implements such as chains, axes and the like. This is one mighty scrap that stays with you long after the film is over. Veteran director Aldrich was in his element with this sort of stuff, so it comes as no surprise that the dramatic mechanics take a bit of a back seat here. But when you've got two leads like Marvin and Borgnine, it simply doesn't matter. Borgnine had played some pretty nasty heavies before in such memorable films as Bad Day At Black Rock and From Here To Eternity, but here, he is a seething mass of rage and menace. His performance is positively startling. Marvin is, once again, marvelous. There will never be another like him, with that voice and ability with delivery, the humour, the physicality and his all around, well… Marvin-ness. Keith Carradine is annoying, as he should be and he's spot on, and the film features many great character actors from the golden days of Hollywood, the likes of Simon Oakland, Elisha Cook Jnr, Vic Tayback and many more.

Yes folks, they just don't make 'em like they used to.
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1:85 widescreen and anamorphically enhanced, Bounty's release of this rarely seen film has no right to look this good, but it does. Much of the film takes place outside amongst mountains, rivers and valleys, and the transfer reproduces the beautiful cinematography just fine, especially for a film of this period. The picture is sharp, with deep rich colours and fairly solid blacks. There is one sequence that takes place in thick fog and it's quite a chore to make out what is going on at times, but viewers shouldn't be concerned as it's quite intentional, with the characters all suffering the same experience.
A Dolby Digital 2 channel English mono track, which from what I can gather, is the original way it was released. It's a little thin, but it does the job. Nothing a bit of bass tweaking can't rectify.
Extra Features
Nothing. Not even a trailer.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Sam Peckinpah was originally slated to direct Emperor Of The North and it would have been interesting to see what he would have done with it. As it is, or was, the great Robert Aldrich got the gig and he did a damn fine job, so if you're a fan of his many great movies, or simply a Lee Marvin/Ernest Borgnine fan, then you must seek out this obscure little gem that has finally been given a long overdue Region 4 release. It's a brutal, gutsy adventure and a real bloke's movie!


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