Monday, June 13, 2011

Emperor of the North

Emperor of the North a.k.a Emperor of the North Pole (1973)
Dir. Robert Aldrich
Starring Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Ernest Borgnine’s Crazy Eyes, Keith Carradine

How are you going to say no to a movie with that cast, from the director of THE DIRTY DOZEN? You might think you could hold out because you’ve never heard if it before, but when I tell you Ernest Borgnine has a huge hammer that he uses to crack open the skulls of hobos foolish enough to try and catch a ride on his train you’ll have to relent and admit that you’re on your way home to watch it right now. That’s the magic of the written word, right there. Pen is mightier than the sword, although not necessarily stronger than Borgnine flinging his goddam hammer at your fragile brain-pan.

This is an enjoyable and leisurely study in unassuming badassery from Robert Aldrich, and while it’s not quite as overwhelming as it might have been with that cast, it’s obviously worth the time for anyone who cares about decency. Lee Marvin plays a venerable hobo of some distinction among his peers named A #1, who is goaded into the ultimate show of hobo prowess: catching a ride on a train conducted by the notably anti-hobo Shack (Borgnine, positively unable to contain his enthusiasm for murder). Carradine plays a boastful greenhorn hobo named Cigaret, full of false bravado but without the experience to back it up. As Cigaret gets in over his head, A#1 reluctantly steps in as his mentor.

In this time before hobos had shotguns, they couldn’t do much to change the society of their Depression-era Northwest home, but they could at least stick it to the man. The film plays their antics as an effort to find some pride and humanity, and it adds a little understated emotional heft to a film which is basically about two guys trying to ride on a train without another guy seeing them. Clocking in at a minute shy of two hours, it’s a leisurely film with a surprisingly meandering plot, but it wisely keeps Marvin and Carradine at its center. Marvin is as cool as you’d imagine, quiet and confident. Carradine (in his second film and first starring role) grates a little as the brash younger man. It’s an irritating performance and character, but I think intentionally so. We occasionally catch a glimpse of the frightened kid behind the too-loud braggart, and it helps give the performance a touch of desperation and come off more sympathetic.

The odd thing about the film is that it seems weirdly unaware of its own darkness. The aggressively whimsical musical cues and sunny, gorgeous composition would lead us to believe this is a lark about hobo hijinks on the open road, but the content of the story is quite disturbing. Borgnine isn’t just an uptight authority figure to knock off his high horse -- he’s a homicidal psychopath just barely maintaining a thin veneer of assholery to cover it up. He doesn’t kill hobos because he wants to control his train; he drives a train so he has an excuse to sadistically kill a class of people no one is going to miss right out in the open. And Marvin and Carradine aren’t much better off. They’re filthy, tattered bums who have no hope whatsoever of ever rejoining society. The only option they have to retain any dignity at all is to become an Emperor of the North Pole – a top tier hobo. They lie, steal, nearly get killed and seriously endanger plenty of lives (their own and others) to try and achieve this lofty goal, but its pointlessness is already there in the title. Emperor of the North Pole still ain’t got shit. Meanwhile their friends are happily taking bets over whether or not they’ll be violently killed. Shit, this is a film which begins with a guy’s corpse getting cut in fucking half by a train. It ends in an absolutely brutal, bloody fight where A#1 and Shack go at each other with 2x4s, chains, rusty nails, hammers and axes, followed by a fairly heartbreaking coda where one major character is utterly destroyed and completely denied any redemption. But then after it ends the music cues up this stereotypical inspiring western melody, as if this is some lighthearted lark.

Clearly overseas they understand that sex sells.

I’m not sure if this was studio bungling, or if Robert Aldrich didn’t realize what he had, or what. But the plot and the creative side of the film seem to be constantly pulling in two different directions. I’m all for dark movies which don’t need to constantly drown you in depressing mise-en-scene, but this one seems to actively undermine its inner darkness as if it’s throwing its hands over its ears and shutting its eyes to it. If there’s a reason it hasn’t quite achieved classic status, this weird divide between style and content is probably it. It’s never as whimsical as it’s telling us it is, nor does it effectively take advantage of the black heart at the center of its narrative.

That said, you’re still going to watch it, and you’re going to find plenty of great things in there. For one thing, Lee Marvin fights two kids using a live chicken as a weapon. There are some classic and fun one-ups and tricks by the hobos as they scramble to stay ahead of Borgnine and the law, and some equally entertaining dirty tricks employed by Shack. There’s a scene where the two hobos scam a bunch of townies at a riverside baptism featuring a buxom brunette who becomes much more interesting to watch after being baptized (go ahead, look; Lee Marvin’s staring too). And it has Sid Haig and apparently fucking Lance Henriksen as hobo extras (I don’t think either of them has a line of dialogue, but you’ll at least notice Sid Haig’s menace in there. If anyone can find Henriksen in this thing you fucking tell me where he is. It’s like locating Joe Strummer in WALKER.) Even if the film’s weird disconnect between tone and narrative means it falls short of the classic it could have been, its still a fun, classy ride with two of cinemas greatest badasses squaring off on top of an actual moving train. Don’t even try and tell me you can do better with two hours of your time.

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