the North Pole
Robert Aldrich set this epic duel between the king of the hoboes versus
the most sadistic of Railroad Men during the height of the Great Depression
in 1933. The simple story taps into the hatred the railroad people have
for the tramps. It is about one bum's aim, Lee Marvin, who is known as A
No. 1, king of the hoboes, to ride the previously unridden No. 19 freight
train of the murderous Shack (Ernest Borgnine).
Aldrich for the most part steers clear of the political situation in the
country instead he uses these men as powerful mythic symbols, showing the
oppressed versus the oppressor. Marvin is laconic, immensely proud to be
a hobo, and proud enough to claim he can ride any train for free. While
Borgnine is a sadist, who sports a menacing grin and believes that the hoboes
are the scum of the earth. He will sledgehammer anyone to death who thinks
they can get a free ride on his train. Borgnine's claim to fame is, no one
gets a free ride on his train unless they want to be dead. These two are
on a collision course and their dispute can only be settled in a violent
Into the picture comes a young hobo called Cigaret (Keith Carradine), who
has an unmitigating gall for taking risks but has trouble telling the truth.
He has no class in the beginning of the film and no class by the film's
end. He forces himself on Marvin by riding along with him on No. 19. Marvin
reluctantly tries to make him into a professional hobo but the kid is a
wise guy, always making a backstabbing remark as a rejoinder to anything
Marvin announces his challenge to Borgnine by writing on the water tower:
A-No. 1 to Portland on train No. 19. This comes after Marvin rode in with
Borgnine to New Orleans for a short hop, but was discovered in the empty
cattle car when Carradine also jumped in. When Borgnine locks them in the
car it spells certain doom for them, but Marvin sets the car on fire and
jumps out in time.
Not able to shake Carradine he acts as a reluctant teacher to him, trying
as best he could to warm up to the obnoxious kid. When they are spotted
by Cracker (Tyner), another enforcer on the train, they are forced to jump
off. But determined to continue, Marvin greases the tracks to slow down
passenger train so that they can hop aboard and thereby meet No. 19 in Salem,
Trying to teach the kid the ropes, he takes him to a Baptist baptism in
the river and has the kid steal their clothes while the worshippers are
going through with the dunking ritual. If the kid could just shut up and
be grateful that he is learning how to be a hobo from the king, Marvin could
have warmed up to him a little.
But Marvin's main beef is with Borgnine. This all leads to the duel between
the steel chain swinging Borgnine and the board wielding Marvin, as Carradine
chickens out and becomes only a reluctant cheerleader for Marvin. The fight
atop the moving train is filled with blood and gore.
Marvin is terrific as the spry and wizened hobo. Borgine is a caricature
of someone spewing hatred. Carradine is the one who breaks the illusion
that all the hoboes are good and all the railroad men bad. Aldrich's film
is muscular, depicting the natural beauty of the Oregon countryside, while
aimless life of the hoboes is humorously set in motion. It's just too bad
that the director couldn't connect all the dots with the corrupt political
situation that caused this great suffering in the country and left so many
with either hardened hearts or with empty stomachs.
"'Emperor of the North Pole' is a king-of-the-hill movie. It sees
all live in terms of fysical self-assertion, in terms of beating the other
guy, not because there is anything valuable to win, but rather because if
you don't win you lose, and when you lose, you're nothing. Absolute zero.
It is a game a lot of small boys play all their lives.
Christopher Knopf, who wrote the original screenplay, is not without his
impulses to set 'Emperor of the North Pole' in a lager, more meaningful
context, but usually he resists them. More important, he has created almost
perfect action-movie characters, people who can't bore us with their earlier
histories because they don't have any. They exist solely within the time
and the action of the film itself. When it stops, they vanish, but we have
had a sensational ride.
With his last film 'Ulzana's raid', and this new one, Aldrich clinches a
claim to being the best director of this kind of film now at work. This
is not because he plays down to a lower class of film but because he takes
it seriously enough to get splendid performances from his actors and to
stage the action sequences with a dizzying vividness and accuracy.
Compare the technical proficiency of the various fights that Aldrich has
staged here, a lot of them aboard moving freight cars, with the lethargic,
dumbly bloody gunfights in Sam Peckinpah's 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid'.
It's no contest.
The suspense of the film (which is so hugely violent that it's PG rating
is a mystery) is unrelenting and the performances first-rate, including
that of Keith Carradine, a son of John, as a loudmouth kid to whom Marvin
tries to teach the rules of the road. The only ludicrous thing in the film
is a song sung behind the credits. It tells us, if my notes do not deceive
me, that "a train's not a man, and a man's not a train, for a man can
do things a train never can.""
America is in the midst of the Depression in 1933 and hobo jungles are
springing up all over the
country. Homeless men move from one camp to another via the rides they sneak
on freight trains. But most stay away from train Number 19 whose conductor,
Shack (Ernest Borgnine) has killed hobos who dare to ride his train. Yet
there is one man, A-No.1 (Lee Marvin), who has been given the title "Emperor
of the North," by his fellow hobos for daring to ride Number 19.
Next time Number 19 pulls out of the train yard, a newcomer called "Cigaret"
(Keith Carradine) slips aboard. Shack discovers the two men and quickly
throws them off his train. Undaunted and very much taken with his protege,
A-No.1 teaches Cigaret the art of using a passenger train to overtake the
slow Number 19, so the two men can jump across and reboard.
Outraged, Shack probes beneath the moving train with a steel bar in a determined
effort to dislodge his unwanted passengers. Seriously injured, A-No.1 is
forced to pull the brake, thus leading to the final confrontation between
Shack and A-No.1.
Go on to...............
of the North, the movie-play.
Images from web sites promoting the movie's various products.
"A-No.1 At Rest At Last"
Copyright by Grahamqckr 2001