Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Emperor of the North Pole (1973)


          The opening moments of this Depression-era action story set the disjointed mood. After Marty Robbins sings a corny theme song over a montage of a freight train barreling through the wilderness, the train pulls up to a water tower, and a hobo sneaks aboard one of the junctions between cars. Once the train restarts, a thuggish railroad cop known as Shack (Ernest Borgnine) spots the hobo and slams the poor schmuck in the head with a lead hammer, sending him under the train to become a mutilated corpse. Then composer Frank De Vol’s weirdly upbeat music pops in, like the whole sequence was a comedy vignette. As proven by peerless movies like The Dirty Dozen (1967), director Robert Aldrich knew his way around action sequences. However, he often erred tonally, and Emperor of the North Pole shows off the strengths and weaknesses of his filmmaking. The sequences of danger on the rails are thrilling, but the overlong movie wobbles awkwardly between lighthearted adventure and brutal suspense. After far too much preamble, the main storyline pits Shack against a veteran rail rider called “A No. 1” (Lee Marvin), who sets out to become the first hobo to ride Shack’s train without getting killed. As a result, most of the picture comprises scenes of A. No. 1 and a young cohort, Cigarette (Keith Carradine), hopping on and off the train in between violent skirmishes with Shack.
          Had the movie been whittled down to just 90-ish minutes of exciting mano-a-mano action, the flick would have been killer, but instead, viewers get meandering scenes of A No. 1 hanging out in hobo camps and harassing Baptists. Marvin is his usual cruelly cool self, all grizzled attitude and manly presence, and Carradine complements him with overbearing youthful arrogance, but it’s mostly the bad guy’s show. As played by boisterous bull Borgnine, Shack is memorable monster, defending his train with insane vigor—in one especially vivid throwaway scene, Shack glances at a coworker who just died on the job and growls the epithet “useless bastard” before getting back to his own work. Despite its flaws, Emperor of the North Pole is solid stuff for the intended audience: The Oregon location photography by old Hollywood pro Joseph Biroc is impressive, the actors do a fair number of their own stunts on moving trains, and the final confrontation between Borgnine and Marvin is frightening for its sheer malevolence.

Emperor of the North Pole: FUNKY

3 comments:

Heli0tr0pe said...

Heh-heh...you said "pole."

Tommy Ross said...

Excellent film, one of Borgnine's shining moments, he was perfect for the major bad-ass he plays in this film, as his character says "Nobody rides the Shack's train!"

Tommy Ross said...

pulled this off the shelf last night, forgot about the scene at the end, final showdown between Lee Marvin and Earnest Borgnine, should go down in the books as one of the all-time greatest fight scenes in a movie.