I like a good train movie, and "Emperor of the North" provides a pretty wild ride.
Robert Aldrich was a great action director. His films included classics like "The Dirty Dozen," "Flight of the Phoenix" and "The Longest Yard."
"Emperor of the North" follows the tradition of those films, but failed to achieve their box office success and remains little seen today. Some people say it failed because it didn't have a female character to hook the female audience, but, if that were true, how do you explain the success of the other films I mentioned? I don't think there was a single woman in "Flight of the Phoenix," and the only women in "The Dirty Dozen" were prostitutes and ready-to-be slaughtered Germans. No, this film failed because it was too dark, too grimy and ultimately too unsatisfying -- even by 1970s standards.
That said. It is a pretty good action film on its own terms.
The plot is simple. It's the height of the depression. Poverty and unemployment are rampant. Many men roam the country looking for work or better opportunities and many of them do so by riding the rails. The always reliable Lee Marvin plays a "A No. 1" -- a legend among hobos. He goes and does what he pleases living by his wits and guts. He soon finds himself being tailed by Keith Carradine's "Cigaret" -- an annoying, boastful young hobo. The third character in this piece is Ernest Borgnine's Shack. Shack is the sadistic conductor of the No. 19 train. Shack would rather kill a man than give him a free ride. Obviously these characters were bound to collide, and, after a series of events, Marvin announces to the world, through a message written on a water tower, that he intends to ride Borgnine's train to Portland. Carradine tags along for the life-or-death struggle.
Although Marvin was the star, Borgnine steals the film right out from under him. Too many people are dismissive of Borgnine because of his role in "McHale's Navy," but he could play a very compelling bad guy. Remember, he's the guy who beat Frank Sinatra to death in "From Here To Eternity," but that character was a sweetheart compared to Borgnine's character in this film. Shack is a vile, evil creation. In lesser hands, he would have been a one-dimensional bully, but Borgnine gives him the occasional flash of humanity. After a series of encounters with the hobos leave the train on course for a possible head on collision, Shack shouts out an offer of a temporary truce to his antagonists. Not out of fear of his own safety. No, it seems more out of a sense of duty to the railroad. He might have a passion for violence, but he also has a more understandable sense of duty. Granted, it is that very devotion to duty that fires his sadistic rage. Hobos steal rides from the railroad. Therefore, it is his duty (and pleasure) to make sure no such thefts occur on his train. His entire ego is built around the fact that no one has ridden his train for free.
So why did the film fail? Easy. A lack of character arcs. No one changes. No one learns anything. Therefore, the violence is pointless and unfulfilling. In "The Dirty Dozen," which also featured Marvin and Borgnine, the selfish, unreliable death-row prisoners ultimately learn to work together as a team and show a willingness to sacrifice for each other. The violence transformed and cleansed them. In "Flight of the Pheonix," the men put aside their prejudices and egos to work together as a team and as a result are ennobled by their ordeal. The same is true of "The Longest Yard." The egotistical quarterback, Burt Reynolds, grows by putting his future on the line for his prisoner teammates. The audience gets to go home happy.
There is no such moment in "Emperor of the North." Shack never doubts his course of action: People who try to steal a ride on his train deserve death. Marvin learns nothing either. He steps into the film a legend among the hobos and his legend only grows. At the very least one would expect Cigaret, the young would-be protege, to grow as a result of Marvin's hard won wisdom, but the film deprives the audience of even that victory. The conflict, therefore, was pointless.
In the 1970's, Hollywood briefly produced some films that deliberately gave the audiences unhappy or unsatisfying endings. This is one of them, and it suffers as a result.
Still, if all you want is tough guy action on a train, you need go no further.