Train Riding Bums: Beaten With Sledgehammers

Been working on a review of Emperor of the North all weekend. Seems like every time I sit down to tighten it up, I just write more. barf. sooo. here are my notes so far:

Emperor of the North : Review

Lee Marvin rules – the toughest hobo to ever ride the rails during the Great Depression! Emperor of the North is both a “Train Thriller” with plenty of violence, and a fun “Hobo” genre film (with some arguably existential overtones). Robert Aldrich’s 1973 effort exploits an epic battle of wills and twisted marathon of manly endurance between Lee Marvin’s world weary uber-bum, who has claimed the title “A No.1,” and Ernest Borgnine’s monstrous sledgehammer swinging Trainman, who is known only as “Shack.” From the sidelines, Keith Carradine delivers a third lead, who calls himself “Cigaret,” and ably rounds out this trio of stubborn head-butters with a youthful yokel foolishness and charm.

You should know that an ‘Emperor of the North (Pole)’ is explained during the movie as a sort of a crazy hobo aspiration, translating loosely into mainstream-moviegoer tongue as something akin to “the undeniable king of a cold empty wasteland that nobody wants – but a king nonetheless!” After a series of seriously scarring scrapes and slams, only one of these three men will be able to truly claim he wears this lonely crown.

The basic gist of the movie is that one fine sunny day A No.1 and Cigaret briefly rode Shack’s usually death-inducing train, without being brutally killed, and nobody can believe it! Usually indifferent to any sort of acclaim for his acheivements, A No.1 is angered by the confusion and misplaced rumors that swirl around his success. So he decides to lay it out for the whole world, and finally make an example of his counterparts: not only did he do it, but he’ll do it again by riding the damned train all the way through Oregon! Shack’s response is pretty much the same as it always has been, which is to murder this uppity ‘bo as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, Cigaret struggles to take credit for everything A No.1 accomplishes, by hanging on his coattails and yammering on and on into the ears of anyone who’ll listen. We soon see that he might someday have a shot at being a contender, on either side of this conflict, if he can just pay a little bit more attention to the lessons these two grizzled warriors are serving up left and right.

While this mentoring relationship is ultimately probably the point of the film (and the element of the story that will stick with you the longest as you mull the movie over), what will certainly satisfy on your first viewing is Shack’s endless evil leering hunt for our hopeless homeless heroes, up and down the length of his pristine powerful train.

Borgnine’s bug-eyed performance, as the company man who will happily kill any slob stupidly seeking a free ride, is the reason you MUST see this film. You will be shocked and amazed to see just how far Borgnine goes with his choice to chew up the scenery, while swinging chains, sledgehammers, pipes, and more, into the poor festering flesh of society’s castaways. (This is really my favorite Borgnine bully ever, though no self-stroking critic can get away without acknowledging his similarly sinister turns as “Coley Trimble” in “Bad Day At Black Rock” and the slavishly sadistic “Fatso Judson” in “From Here To Eterninty”).

I find it hard to separate all the great violence of this film from the singular vision of Borgnine’s little toothy grin and sweating red face. Ahem. But here’s a shot at it. Be forwarned that the film delivers grisly murders, painful pummeling, disgusting swaths of burned flesh, and delightfully bright red splats of blood-paint. Axes are embedded in arms. Huge wooden planks, thick chains, two foot long lead pipes, and even a random steam hose: are all used as weapons. At two different points, a railway spike is even hung from a lenght of rope beneath the train, so that its unforgiving metal weight can bounce about freely into the flesh and bones of our ill-hid heroes. Knees are even kicked sideways, which is queerly always the hardest thing for me to stomach.

However, in counterpoint to all this delicious 70’s style super gore (so exaggerated it’s almost funny?), a pair of large beautiful breasts are also featured. During a baptismal scene, we are treated to two large dark natural nipples seen through the sheen of a wet white shirt, down by the river (and all this accompanied by some snarky jibes from A No.1 about the sexiness of the whole silly situation).

My guess, is that something in there will probably please just about every man who walks this great green earth.

This 20th Century Fox production was mysteriously rated PG (despite an opening scene where we see a hapless homeless man getting his head crushed by a sledge hammer, then his body bouncing around sickly beneath the train, before he is finally revealed in pieces across tracks in the train’s dust). Perhaps this rating was sought as an intentional trick to lure in children, perpetrated by the aged rebels who made the film?

Originally released as “Emperor of the North Pole,” the film was only in circulation for a few weeks of extreme flopping, before being yanked from theaters. Legend has it there was a widespread misunderstanding of the rating and title, which led parents to think they were taking their kids to something Santa Claus related. After a few months, the picture was re-released as simply “Emperor of the North,” a baffling title for those who are just now discovering it on DVD.

An interesting Christmas-film side note: Rob Reiner’s family friendly experiment “The Polar Express” drops a notable nod to Aldrich’s manly hobo film, when a computer generated homeless man stands up on the titular train and shouts that he is “King of the North Pole!”

Here are some excellent explorations of the film from around the web, for further reading:

DVD Talk, Paul Mavis (June 2006)
– A cool historical perspective with lots of trivia (from someone who’s mom sent him to see it accidentally)

The Agitation of the Mind, Neil Fulwood (January 2009)
– primarily concerning Richard Aldrich’s importance and context as the director

Some uber fan’s awesome random Amazon review/comment, Theodore R. “Hopper-Boy” Hazen (March 2006)
– Incredibly fresh insights and explanation of the backstory of the movie. Hidden away as a simple amazon comment for the DVD release! First place I’d ever heard that the storyline was based on the books ‘The Road’ by Jack London (who gave himself the nickname “Cigaret”) and ‘From Coast to Coast with Jack London’ by “A-No.-1” (the pen name of Leon Ray Livingston).

Cult film site Scorched Earth Productions offers a video called “Behind The Scenes – Volume 4” (look under the “TELEVISION” header) which supposedly has some great footage of the making of Emperor Of The North.


Shack deserves an action figure for his terrifyingly cold performance as the sweaty monster in the fastidious black suit, who goes so far as to store his killing hammers in a compartment up near engineering.

Then again, so does Vinnie Jones for his “Mahogany” character, who dons a spotless sharp suit while tenderizing the unlucky (subway) train riders of modern day LA in Ryuhei Kitamura magnificent 2008 horror film, The Midnight Meat Train. While I cannot find any real concrete juicy connection between the films, they do share a sort of underlying symbolic social commentary. The Midnight Meat Train is more about the subway system serving as a city’s intestinal machine, with a suited servant delivering up random unlucky souls to a secret voracious evil mechanism. Emperor of the North is more about how to operate outside society’s systems, while still taking advantage of their power structures. Both end with a message about how to wrest control away from The Machine’s evil suited rule-enforcers. Clive Barker claims he came up with his meaty short story (which the film closely follows) after falling asleep on the NY subway, and finding himself at an end-of-line train station which had literally zero people present. Further, in the film’s commentary, he finds it most interesting to note all the similarities to William Friedkin’s 1980 gay-underworld murder flick, Cruising. But part of me has to believe that Barker saw Emperor of the North and let its buttoned up security man with a sledgehammer bake in his subconscious.

In the pivotal central scene in Gus Van Sant’s Portland based Paranoid Park (2007), a train yard security guard hassles a good looking skater kid and his older homeless friend, known only as “Scratch.” SPOILER ALERT: this hasslin’ leads directly to the security man getting whacked in the face with a hammering skateboard, and clumsily stumbling backwards under the wheels of a nearby train. It may sound like a nod to Emperor of the North, but again I couldn’t find any concrete connection. I’d wager Van Sant’s contemplatively slow-paced art-movie is more about teen alienation, and the curious beauty of young confusion. Much more about being inside the experience of a teenager, rather than any form of cautionary tale told by old angry men. Emperor of the North perhaps touched on the same lack of meaningful motivation or connection in America’s youth, but was told from a decidedly differing perspective. That of a titillating and violent old bastard who probably hated children and clubbed baby seals on set. Just kidding. (OR … AM I?!?!??! I’ll let YOU decide. dunh dunh dunh!)

In 2003, Matrix Revolutions introduced a strange character, played by the long faced Bruce Spence, who is only ever known as the Trainman. He is a tall lanky homeless man who repeatedly yells at people to get away from him. Ultimately he’s guarding a transcendental system for transferring rebellious exiled programs from one world to another (or, in common superficial speek, he maintains the only known unauthorized link between the Human’s Matrix and Machine’s City). Probably more closely related to the ferryman Charon, escorting lost souls for the Devilish Merovingian’s un-understandable purposes, I can’t help but imagine the Wachowski’s we and are hip enough to have known about Emperor of the North, along with it’s potentially spiritual symbolism. Besides, Bruce Spence’s crooked teeth, stubbled chin, and bug eyed crazy appearance in the Trainman’s rags just looks a helluva lot like Lee Marvin crossed with Ernest Borgnine to me. He doesn’t like freeloaders, and basically serves as a homeless bum who guards the most important rails. I’d bet money it’s a nod. And since the Wachowski’s won’t do interviews, I CAN NEVER BE PROVEN WRONG!

Emperor of the North was a big break for young Keith Carradine, who was only 2 years into his acting career, having only appeared in a few tv movies and shows (some bit parts in Bonanza and Kung Fu). His annoying yokel-youth role and kind of uneven performance are both a fascinating far cry from his modern much loved and perfectly executed characters in Deadwood, Dexter, and Dollhouse – and the upcoming film Cowboys & Aliens. You came a long way, Kid, with class. (is what A No.1 would say, if … he were real. and watching too much tv, today.).

Tony Scott’s recent everyman action picture, Unstoppable (2010), featured a heart pounding game of chicken when our small-town-nobody heroes are forced to race their locomotive towards an unmanned machine that is racing towards them at unknown speeds. Having foolishly latched too many cars onto their engine, they must seek for a longer than normal length of side rail miles out of their way so they can pull their train over and let the other unmanned crazy-train pass. This sequence very closely resembles a sequence in Emperor, when Shack skews up a trick to evade A No.1, by racing out of the trainyard at unsafe speeds so he can beat the oncoming mail train – to a set of side rails where he can pull over safely. Both sequences are about the insane tension of knowing a train is somewhere out there on shared rails, racing towards you – and your only choice is to beat the clock by going faster towards them like a daredevil. This daredevil concept, that we can only avoid the crash by going into it faster, is featured in the middle of both movies, though it is definitely more realistically handled in Scott’s version. In Emperor they edited around the need to throw a few switches that move track around. It’ll be interesting to see to what degree Scott and/or his crew acknowledge the Emperor that came before.

I wonder if there will be any connection offered up in the upcoming grindhouse flick, Hobo with a Shotgun. I wonder if Stand By Me (1986) worked in any nods, since it was shot along the same sections of southern Oregon train tracks. I wonder if Emperor in turn offered any nods to Buster Keaton’s 1926 classic, The General, which was also shot on these Cottage Grove area rails.

But since much of the scenic imagery (and iconic large wooden bridge) have been torn down in the past few years, I guess I should just let it go.



Ultimately, the goal of Emperor of the North was to probably to shovel a cautionary tale down the throats of 60’s youth culture. The whole movie culminates with the old gypsy killing “the man.” Now that this anti-establishment protagonist has contorl, he immediately turns around and tosses his useless young gypsy apprentice over the side. As the annoying kid struggles to stay afloat in murky waters, the old man shouts out from his lonely perch. He claims that this kid will never achieve his sort of triumph over the machine/system – because he doesn’t have the class.

Bam! Credits.

The DVD features a fun commentary track by Cinema Studies Professor Dana Polan, which hammers this cultural symbolism. Then goes so far as to wonder if the characters all lack real names because their sort of like ancient greek archetypes. (uh, am I slaughtering his point? hmm)

It is interesting to note that in this final action, A No.1 has become like Shack – tossing homeless people from what is now HIS train, with perhaps a similar level of disgust. But it, isn’t through a misguided sense of responsibility to the system, or any allegiance to those who’ve guarded the train before. Rather, Marvin has ended the reign of an entrenched authority and the kid will not be allowed to enjoy the fruits of this labor, because he doesn’t understand the process. There will be no knowledge or love passed between these two very different generations of rebellion. The kid is forced to find his own cause, and life path, to struggle over. Or he can drown for all Marvin cares. Their connection is forever severed.

Specifically, the final line is: “You had the juice, kid, but not the heart and they go together. You’re all gas and no feel, and nobody can teach you that, not even A-No.1. So stay off the train, she’ll throw you under for sure. Remember me for that. So long, kid. ”

The film Seems to be saying “nevermind, children of the sixties, we aged rebels will deal with America’s struggles to overcome it’s systemic problems – without your help.” I’m not really sure if it was meant as a cautionary warning, or an angry slap in the face. Due to the director’s reputation as a macho filmmaker, I’d guess the latter.

Others will say the theme of the movie is that every young man is doomed to a sorry condition when he will not choose to help fight evil. They might even argue it was a parable about God verses the Devil. Alternately, some might argue it is a battle within one’s own mind, where Borgnine is meant to be like the base animal nature (a clanking oily beast hissing with boiled over rage. an unstoppable monster, guarding the body wherever its heading), while Marvin is the aged Ego, and Carradine is the youthful Id.
(… wait, am I remembering these functions correctly?)

(is it possibly an indictment of Jack London?)

whatever your read on this underlying symbolism, the film is first and foremost enjoyable as a filthy violent smorgasbord of blood and death. Wee.



George C. Scott was originally asked to play A-No.1 because of his work in the movie Flim Flam Man, but turned it down.
Martin Ritt was originally slated to direct (and went on to make the depression era film, Sounder) but was fired from the production. Sam Peckinpah was approached next but he couldn’t agree with the producers on money. The project was then offered to, and accepted by, Robert Aldrich.
The project was originally that of writer Christopher Knopf who based the character of A No. 1 on a real Hobo legend (though little is actually known about him) and was originally going to be directed my Martin Ritt . Ritt was fired by Paramount boss, Robert Evans who then tried to turn it over to Sam Peckinpah—but they disagreed over money issues so the project was sold to Fox so that Robert Aldrich could direct it. Aldrich supposedly ordered the re-write of the character of Shack, making him more of a one dimensional villain and not showing the progression of events that turned him into such a villain.

Director’s perspective (time in career)
Robert Aldritch directs this little seen classic during a lull in his carreer. ?

He’s been directing films for 20 years, after working his way up the ranks of RKO Pictures. He understands the hollywood studio system
of old Hollywood, which is deep shit by 1973 (though Aldrich setup hs own production company in the ’50s,, and produced this along with many other of his pictures.

His cousin was Nelson Rockefeller (vice president under Gerald Ford), and his grandfather Nelson W. Aldrich was leader of the Republican Party in the senate, where he served from 1881 to 1911, and sold his interest in the Rhode Island street railway system in 1906.. He comes from a powerful family, which during the great depression was…?
The Aldrich political dynasty….
The Aldrich-Vreeland Act in 1908 established the National Monetary Commision, which was sponsored and headed by Aldrich. After dozens of reports, this commission drew up The Aldrich Plan – which formed the basis for the Federal Reserve system (In 1913 Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Federal Reserve Act, which was patterned after Aldrich’s vision).

…Son of John D. Rockefeller Jr., whas influential in getting RKO to setup in Rockefeller Center, Robert occupies a cool spot of rebellion in his families oil empire.
Kiss Me Deadly, The Big Knife, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Flight of the Phoenix, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte and The Dirty Dozen.

a studio based paradigm (cast out? Who financed?), where he’s long since made a name for himself with classics like kiss me deadly (32?) and baby Jane(?). Eventually Mash?
supplying this early seventies effort with a lot of aged rage perspective.
Kiss Me Deadly, The Big Knife, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Flight of the Phoenix, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte and
The Dirty Dozen.

rugged, nail-hard director
Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation is noted as copyright holder, and production company – implying they financed? did he do it for the money?


Malcom Atterbury played the conductor, and this was his last film (though he went on to many tv show roles until 1979). His father was president of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Willis Kyle, President of the Oregon, Pacific and Eastern Railway, allowed the film company to have unlimited access to his company’s rolling stock for the film.
Two of the OP&E steams engines, including the number 19, were used to film the movie and are shown
in a number of scenes. –
This was the first movie filmed on the Oregon Pacific & Eastern line since Buster Keaton’s classic “The General (1926)”.
The trestle Bridge at Harms Park was notably featured in both films, as long with “Stand By Me” in 1986.
OP&E’s depot in Cottage Grove (a small wooden shack in the middle of a rail yard) stands in for “Salem” (oregon’s capital, whose train station is a large masonry structure near the city center, built in 1918)

Unfortunately, the railroad as seen in the movie no longer exists. The OP&E tracks were torn up in 1988, and the right-of-way is now a hiking trail.

FYI: the film was shot on the Oregon Pacific & Eastern out of Cottage Grove, Oregon. The “main” locomotive, No. 19, is a 2-8-2 Mikado type built by Baldwin in 1915 for the Caddo & Choctaw, and it later spent time on the McCloud River and the Yreka Western before being moved to the OP&E in 1971. For the movie, No. 19 was given a different tender and a basic black paint job lacking the fancy silver trim that it normally wore. Its main duty on the OP&E was to haul the Saturday-Sunday tourist train between the Village Green Station at Cottage Grove to Culp Creek, which it did from 1971-1988. There are some fantastic close-up scenes of No. 19 in Emperor of the North, and Malcom Atterbury is perfectly cast as “Hogger,” No. 19’s faithful engineer.
The other engine seen in the movie is 2-8-0 No. 5 from the Magma Arizona, an American Locomotive Company product of 1922. If you look carefully you’ll see that it wore three numbers in Emperor of the North – #4, #27, and #5. Both of these engines still exist. No. 19 is at Yreka, California on the Yreka Western where it is being repaired to haul tourist trains again, and No. 5 is on display at a railroad museum in Galveston, Texas.
(amazon review)
The main locomotive in the film, OP&E #19, was actually converted to burn oil in the 1920s. For the Emperor of the North, the filmmakers removed the oil bunker in the tender, installed a smaller one in its place, and hid it under the coal pile, so that it appeared to burn coal. This was done so that shoveling coal into the firebox could be used as a tool to add suspense.


Let us know how you see it, in the comments below.

what was it like to watch these actors in 1973? how were they perceived when this movie was being barely promoted and shuffled through theatres?

what is relation to jack london book?

was this a movie done to pay bills, and directly responsible for the followup film, the longest yard, being about corrupt sports – starring most of the same cast?

Draw lee marvin’s long face, keith’s fear in flames, fueling the train that plows down center with borgnine’s toothy leer atop.

Draw Borgnine as full body round silhouette across diagonal wash to matrix train man? Potential shirt “the train man” crosses movie references, so neither can sue?

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