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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Emperor of the North (Emperor of the North Pole) (Blu-ray)
Emperor of the North (Emperor of the North Pole) (Blu-ray)
Twilight Time // PG // Region Free
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Twilighttimemovies]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted October 6, 2015 | E-mail the Author
DVD Talk Collector Series
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A box office disappointment that for years, inexplicably, was almost impossible to see, Robert Aldrich's Emperor of the North (original title: Emperor of the North Pole, 1973) is today regarded as one of his best films, a uniquely violent allegory pitting hobo Lee Marvin against sadistic railroad conductor Ernest Borgnine. Doomed by a title suggesting an Arctic expedition adventure and, incredibly, rated PG, it's chockfull of wonderful character vignettes though dominated by Borgnine's amazing performance, one of his best and one of screendom's all-time great villains.

Aldrich had a wildly inconsistent career, dominated by virile men's films: Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Ten Seconds to Hell (1959), The Flight of the Phoenix (1966), The Dirty Dozen (1967), The Longest Yard (1974). The Dirty Dozen and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) were huge hits, but he had more than the usual share of baffling misfires and oddball efforts: The Legend of Lylah Clare, The Killing of Sister George (both 1969), Hustle (Awful!, 1974), and . . .All the Marbles (1981), Aldrich's last film.

As with most of the titles noted above, Aldrich somewhat ham-fistedly tries to infuse Emperor of the North with a THEME. In this case it is a lot of philosophical, existential dialogue, and making the characters played by Marvin and Borgnine, as well as Keith Carradine (as a younger, brasher hobo vying for Marvin's "title"), symbols of the antiestablishment, establishment, and "the youth of today," respectively. (Aldrich stated this shortly after the movie was released, but the film doesn't really seem to be showing this at all.) All this extra baggage brings the picture down a notch or two, just as it would Andrei Konchalovsky's even more pretentious Runaway Train a dozen years later, badly adapted from a singularly unpretentious screenplay by Akira Kurosawa.

But Emperor of the North, at its most essential, is exciting and interesting throughout, and Twilight Time's new Blu-ray, licensed from Fox, offers a dazzlingly good transfer along with some fine extras.

The movie is set during the height of the Great Depression, where conductor Shack (Borgnine) obsessively denies hobos a free ride on his train. In the movie's shocking opening scene, he battles one would-be rider with a hammer. The man falls under the moving train and after being pummeled for several dozen yards is neatly sliced in two under its wheels.

After the titles, A-No. 1 (Marvin) manages to board Shack's train but another, less experienced rider, Cigaret (Keith Carradine), makes their presence known to Shack, who locks them in a boxcar. A-No. 1 ingeniously sets fire to some hay and burns his way out, but Cigaret is caught. In the train yard workers place bets as to whether A-No. 1 or Cigaret can outsmart the universally despised Shack and ride the famously unaccommodating No. 19 train all the way to Portland, Oregon, while the hobo community gets behind A-No. 1's efforts.

As is the case with nearly all of Aldrich's films from Baby Jane forward, Emperor of the North is overlong, with a particularly flabby third act that digresses shamelessly. Some critics have accurately described Christopher Knopf's dialogue as sounding like warmed-over Eugene O'Neill, an amusing observation, but in other respects the film is mesmerizing, with most of the credit going to Borgnine's wild-eyed sadist. (Charles Tyner, the epitome of ‘70s slimy villainy, plays Shack's subordinate. That Tyner comes off almost sympathetic next to Borgnine is a testament to the latter's playing.)

Though 55 at the time of filming, Borgnine is an overwhelming and intimidating physical presence. Further, the actor rather than a stuntman is clearly climbing up and running atop moving boxcars himself (as do Marvin, Tyner, and Carradine) adding to the verisimilitude. Indeed, only an actor of Marvin's stature would have been believable not to be intimidated by his presence. Perpetually full of rage, Borgnine's Shack positively seethes with hate for all mankind and yet it's a performance so carefully measured that not for a moment does Borgnine overact.

The film was suggested by Jack London's The Road and From Coast to Coast with Jack London by Leon Ray Livingston, using the pen name "A-No.-1." Those were set during an earlier economic depression, the 1890s, but the 1933 setting works extremely well. Unlike some of Aldrich's films with historical settings, Emperor of the North has a better eye on the little details, with authentic period haircuts (Borgnine's, closely cropped on the sides, brings out his bulging, angry eyes and make him even more menacing) and wardrobe. The hobo communities seen in the film resemble historical photographs and are realistically chaotic and filthy, never looking like something from a studio art department. The Oregon locations, the same ones seen nearly half a century earlier in Buster Keaton's The General, also lend the film an atypical feel.

The "bum philosophy" aspects of Marvin's character, Carradine's annoyingly boastful and, at times, stupid one, are muddled, Cigaret covets the title "Emperor of the North Pole" (ironically without value, lording over a vast wasteland) but lacks the heart and class of A-No. 1, who for no clear reason agrees to take him on as a kind of barely-tolerable disciple. Maybe A-No. 1 is slyly just using Cigaret's as an extra set of hands to emerge victorious over Shack's one-man army, or maybe he's unaware of some sort of longing to have someone around to keep his myth alive after he's gone. (Reader Sergei Hasenecz, who only saw the movie once in 1973 but remembers it vividly, adds, "Otherwise, Marvin seems to be somewhat contemptuously amused by the greenness of the punk, such as when Carradine calls himself "Ol' Cigaret", or when they are riding atop a car and Marvin uses him belt to attach himself to the car while Carradine has to hang on. Maybe Marvin thought he saw something in Carradine and is waiting for him to prove himself. This shows at the end when Marvin tosses him from the train and shouts back at him, 'You could have been a meateater!' (emphasis mine). I think he is aware [of his own myth-making], although it goes unstated. There is the scene of Marvin showing an old hobo (mentor?) a newspaper to prove how swiftly he traveled. It doesn't seem to be bragging so much as it is 'See how well I learned?' In any case, I like that ambiguity about Marvin's motives.")

Video & Audio

Twilight Time's Blu-ray, using a 1.85:1 high-def master supplied by Fox, looks fantastic, a transfer that really brings out DP Joseph Biroc's cinematography. Detail is excellent, colors are true, and the contrast and blacks are great. The 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio (English only) is likewise excellent, and optional English SDH are provided. The disc is region-free.

Extra Features

Supplements include an isolated track of Frank DeVol's score (by this point he had stopped billing himself simply as "DeVol"); an older, somewhat gratingly "scholarly" reading of the film by USC Cinema Professor Dana Polan; a trailer and TV spots.

Parting Thoughts

As literate social commentary Emperor of the North is pretty much a bust, but as an action film supplemented by great performances by Lee Marvin and especially Ernest Borgnine, violent action sequences expertly helmed by Aldrich, Emperor of the North is really something. A DVD Talk Collector Series title.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His new documentary and latest audio commentary, for the British Film Institute's Blu-ray of Rashomon, will be released this September.

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