Set during the Great Depression, director Robert Aldrich’s Emperor of the North is a tough and gritty survival starring two American cinema legends Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine. The two actors have previously worked together with Aldrich on the classic World War-II action adventure film The Dirty Dozen. Here, Marvin plays a legendary hobo named A No.1 and Borgnine plays a sadistic railroad cop named Shack.
The latter treats hobos like vermin and would do anything to stop them from getting a free ride on his train. For a hobo, getting caught red-handed by Shack is equivalent to a death sentence. In a brutal scene, one of them meets with a violent death when Shack drops his heavy hammer on him. The only hobo who has managed to evade him and has succeeded in surviving so far is A No.1, who is determined to challenge Shack and end his reign for good. He wants to be the “Emperor of the North Pole”, a heroic title that will be bestowed upon anyone who manages to bring down Shack.
A No.1 is relentless and along with the rest of his gang starts making his moves, including setting up bets and frustrating challenges for Shack and company at the tracks. When a young, reckless and motormouth hobo named Cigaret (Keith Carradine) arrives at the scene, things start to get a little complicated. A No.1 is one of those tough guys who works better alone and don’t need no partner. Although hesitant at first, he gradually decides to play mentor to him and teach him a few tricks in the process.
Among the highlights of the film are Lee Marvin’s splendid performance, the welcome dose of humor in a few scenes courtesy of Carradine and Marvin and the final confrontation between Marvin and Borgnine. This brutal fight sequence is brilliantly choreographed and will have you on the edge of your seat. This is one of Marvin’s finest roles. As the world-weary and wise old hobo, Marvin is simply superb. He has already proved himself that he can be good at comedy too in Cat Ballou (for which he won his only Best Actor Oscar) and here, he gets to deliver some of the funniest lines in the film. Just watch him in the funny baptism scene.
Borgnine’s Shack maybe a one-dimensional villain but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a compelling character. With those big, bushy eyebrows and almost bulging eyeballs, he is perfect as the comic book type bad guy. Even though the story is set in the 1930s, the film’s soul is very much 1970s. It’s a classic tale about “the survival of the fittest”. I wonder if this film served as an influence for the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? because I noticed few similarities. I found this to be one of Aldrich’s better films.