Monday, July 24, 2006

Emperor of the North

I’m always ready to watch a film set among hoboes, wanderers and others lost in the void of the Great Depression. Maybe it's the Grapes of Wrath existence a lot of my relatives lived during that period? My grandpa Benton had colorful stories about riding on trains during the 1930s. So, it's not a surprise I'd take a liking to Emperor of the North with hoboes battling the railroad cops who desperately try to stop them from riding their train.

Rail workers and train riding tramps were notorious enemies in this era. There was a savage brutality that often ended in blood spilling and even death. Early on we get to see how serious this can be as the meanest S.O.B. of the train cops—Shack (played by the great Ernest Borgnine)—takes his big hammer to a free rider's skull and he’s soon cut in half by wheel on rail.

Emperor of the North, which is based on a story by Jack London drawn from his experiences riding the rails, tells the story of such a battle between men. Lee Marvin plays A-No. 1, a tough as nails, seasoned ‘bo who decides to take on the sadistic Shack. No one has ever ridden on Shack’s No. 19 train. Nobody. The men battle wits and brawn as the train heads west. When I say battle I should include the list of weapons: fist, hammers, axes, boards, chains and wits.

The film is an odd mix of action, gritty ‘70s pulp cinema and social commentary. It works wonderfully. I loved seeing how A-No. 1 and Cigarette (an inexperienced tag-along ‘bo played by Keith Carradine) tried to ride No. 19 while Shack attempted to get rid of them any way he possibly could to save his reputation.

I also loved seeing all the hobo groups and camps talking it up with their slang, nicknames (other ‘bo names were Hogger and Hee-Haw Mike) and gambling up a storm on whether A-No. 1 is the first to ever ride the No. 19 train and live to tell about it. It was a hard life to be a tramp during the depression but the men seemed to have a code and community all their own.

Plus, these were REAL stuntmen doing something called stunts in Emperor of the North! No komputers were involved in any stunt in this movie. When you see a guy fall off a train backwards in Emperor of the North, it’s a real person risking life and limb for the sole art of making a picture better. Action films now are just a bunch of phony komputer aided scenes stripped of the danger because nothing is real. There’s something missing in the spectacle of the CGI films now because that “realness” has been lost.

Emperor of the North is just another example of a hidden gem from the 1970s. That decade had so many great films it’s unreal compared to now. Even their b-films like this were a lot of fun and more interesting than most of the pap out now. This is a fun film that has an epic train throw down from two of the all-time Hollywood tough guy actors in Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine and is worth seeking out.


Jory-san said...

i'm going to be looking for this one. thanks.

Blinky Pitz said...

that's right, that's goddamn right! Being a big lee marvin fan, I've been looking out for this one. There aint tough cookies like him no more in cinema.