This will be the first installment of BEAVER’S LODGE, a weekly series of video essays narrated by actor Jim Beaver which will offer critical takes on some of Beaver’s favorite films. Jim Beaver is an actor, playwright, and film historian. Best known as Ellsworth on HBO’s Emmy-award winning series DEADWOOD and as Bobby Singer on SUPERNATURAL, he has also starred in such series as HARPER’S ISLAND, JOHN FROM CINCINATTI, and THUNDER ALLEY and appeared in nearly forty motion pictures. You can follow Jim on Twitter.
I love this movie. Let’s get that out of the way before I start in on a rant about studio stupidity.
This film is about hobos riding the rails of Depression-era America. It was made and originally released as Emperor of the North Pole. After initial screenings, Twentieth Century Fox executives feared that audiences might think the title indicated a Christmas movie (!) or an Arctic exploration story and so shortened the title to Emperor of the North, a change that made little sense in terms of audience expectations and none at all in light of the fact that “Emperor of the North Pole” is a hobo term used extensively throughout the film. To be emperor of the North Pole, in hobo jargon, is to be king of the road. To be emperor of the north means some idiot is in charge of the title.
This is a tough little picture, directed by Robert Aldrich, no stranger to tough little pictures (Kiss Me Deadly, The Dirty Dozen). It is written by Christopher Knopf (a true gentleman, by the way), reportedly from stories by Jack London. It stars Lee Marvin as the toughest ‘bo on the rails and Ernest Borgnine as the meanest man ever to run a train. Keith Carradine is a windy, self-important, and callow kid who thinks he can play with the big boys. Borgnine’s Shack is the conductor on #19, a freight train plying the rails of the Pacific Northwest. His driving passion is to prevent hobos from stealing free rides on his train, and he’s willing to kill and maim to stop them. Marvin, as “A-No. 1,” decides to ride the 19 and show Shack just who is Emperor of the North Pole.
Marvin is just about perfect in this gritty film. His makeup, his wardrobe, his demeanor, everything about him screams 1930s tough guy on the bum. There’s no glamor to this star turn. The same can be said for Ernest Borgnine, though glamor admittedly was never his strong suit. Borgnine was one of the most decent men in Hollywood, but when he played a heavy, there were few nastier fellows in the business. His intensity and cruelty as the obsessed Shack are brilliantly delineated. Keith Carradine is irritating as Cigaret, the peacock kid who thinks he’s as tough as they come. But he’s supposed to be irritating, and it’s a fine performance.
This is also one of those films that pulls together a passel of great character actors (Elisha Cook Jr., Malcolm Atterbury, Charles Tyner) and leaves one wondering where all the wonderful, familiar faces that used to populate Hollywood films have gone, and why we don’t see such collections of comfortably resonant characters so much anymore. (I think I know why, but that’s corporate talk, for another discussion.)
Most of the action takes place on board the train, and some of it is harrowing. Of particular note is the fact that most of the leading actors put themselves at some extended risk in the making of the film. Long before CGI special effects made such things meaningless, it’s clear in this movie that it really is Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, Keith Carradine, and Charles Tyner walking, running, and clambering on, around, and UNDER a speeding train. Surely safety measures were taken, yet it’s wonderful to see shots where one misstep could have cost a star, not a stuntman, his life–even as it’s good to know nothing like that happened.
Aside from my disgust with the stupidity of the title change, and a couple of too-cutesy moments in the music and a river baptism scene, Emperor of the North Pole is a favorite of mine, an exciting film as tough as old leather and as harsh as the era it depicts. And it’s got Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, two of the hardest hard cases in movies, going head to head. It’s a great ride.