This Thursday night the American Cinematheque will present Los Angeles moviegoers with a rare opportunity to see Robert Aldrich’s masterful Emperor of the North (1973) projected on the Lloyd A. Rigler Auditorium's massive screen inside the Egyptian Theater. The Cinematheque will also feature as its special guest the movie’s screenwriter Christopher Knopf. Knopf, a journeyman writer in television’s early days, wrote for such shows as Wanted: Dead or Alive, Zane Grey Theater, The Big Valley, Dr. Kildare and Cimarron Strip, but Emperor of the North was his first screenplay to make it to the big screen, which was adapted from a short story written by Jack London. Knopf worked with Aldrich again, contributing the screenplay to the director’s 1977 adaptation of Joseph Wambaugh’s The Choirboys, and he also wrote Posse (1975) for Kirk Douglas and a TV-movie sequel of sorts to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kind for Elizabeth Montgomery called Mrs. Sundance (19174), in which the Bewitched star stepped into the shoes once filled by Katharine Ross. But Knopf’s most well-known achievement, outside of Emperor of the North Pole perhaps, is the screenplay for the remarkable 1973 TV-movie A Cold Night’s Death (1973), which is a signpost of terror for genre enthusiasts of my generation. The movie, directed by Jerrold Friedman, stars Eli Wallach and the late Robert Culp as scientists who come to believe that there may be something other than them and their research monkeys occupying the remote arctic facility where they are stationed. A Cold Night's Death exploits the isolation and frigid environment for an exceptional and memorable level of suspense and was that rare commodity—a critical hit at a time when movies made for TV weren’t stylistically all that distinguishable from dramatic series programming. Knopf will undoubtedly have many stories to tell of the making of this movie, as well as fascinating observations about working with Aldrich on Emperor and The Choirboys, and screenwriter Josh Olson (A History of Violence) will be talking to him about all of that and more in the Rigler Theater before the screening. Knopf will also be signing copies of his new book Will the Real Me Please Stand Up? in the Egyptian lobby at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday night.
Emperor of the North is, as far as I can perceive, well-regarded, but I think it deserves a more rarified position in Aldrich’s filmography, if not on the grand stage of movie history, as one of this rugged, nail-hard director’s very best achievements. My enthusiasm for the movie, which I first saw on a drizzly summer night at my hometown drive-in during the summer of 1974, was gloriously confirmed when I finally had the chance to revisit it again four years ago for the Robert Aldrich Blog-a-thon, an Internet gathering of writers which I organized in October 2006 who presented their original pieces written specifically to celebrate, excoriate and analyze the director’s work. The following piece was written for that blog-a-thon, and I republish it here in the hope that you will be encouraged to seek the movie out at the Egyptian this Thursday. Or if you’re not living in Los Angeles, perhaps you'll consider putting the movie on your Netflix queue, where it is easily accessible on DVD, so you can see Aldrich’s brutal, spiritually calloused, cinematically exuberant adventure for yourself.
“1933—The height of the Great Depression. Hoboes roamed the land, riding the rails in a desperate search for jobs. Spurned by society, unwanted and homeless, they became a breed apart-- nomads who scorned the law and enforced their own. Dedicated to their destruction was the Railroad Man who stood between them and their only source of survival—the trains.”
So reads the title card that leads off Robert Aldrich’s Emperor of the North, a brutal, ghostly, propulsive distillation, and heightening, of the existentialist, masculine codes of behavior found entangled among the roots of earlier Aldrich action pictures like Attack! and The Dirty Dozen. Where those films depended largely on how men interacted within groups assembled in wartime who were compelled by a tangible purpose, a mission, which was also informed by Aldrich’s distinctly anti-authoritarian bent, Emperor boils the conflict and the character elements down to their sturdy bones and turns its qualities of moral purpose or righteousness on its ear. Aldrich, working from Christopher Knopf’s lean, spare script, crafts a narrative where, despite the film’s historical context, the primary event is ultimately only of importance to the three main characters, and perhaps the Greek chorus of hoboes and disenchanted railway workers who dot the landscape down the parallel lines and take bets on its outcome. Can the hobo known only as A-#1 (Lee Marvin), and the young ‘bo who imposes himself onto A-#1’s legend (Keith Carradine), succeed in riding the #19 under the nose of its murderous conductor, Shack (Ernest Borgnine), who, as one character correctly observes, “would rather kill a man than give him a free ride”? As an audience, we’re geared to root without hesitance against Shack when his compulsion to protect his railroad, and his train (apart from his murderous sadism), is the one that could be argued as being based in a moral position. A-#1’s actions, on the other hand, stem from personal pride and a desire to survive a deadly situation set into motion by acts he willfully undertakes himself, and whose moral righteousness is derived almost exclusively from the rootless existence imposed upon him not by his deeds but by a country slowly going to hell. When we are forced, as we are in Emperor of the North, to consider this dilemma of identification, we’re set up for the key question for Aldrich within this narrative— just what will victory mean to the survivor?
The movie begins with a device that ties it to its period and to the early days of the movies-- an iris that opens slowly out onto a train, which we will come to recognize as the Oregon Pacific & Eastern #19, moving down the tracks through the Northwest countryside. The opening montage of this relatively idyllic footage is set to a song called “A Man and a Train,” written by Hal David and Frank DeVol (who also scored the movie), a somewhat hokey ballad with lyrics that illuminate the elemental approach to the film’s action but betray its serious, hard-boiled one with gee-whiz orchestration and Marty Robbins’ earnest vocals. Throughout the movie, the music is the movie’s one serious tonal misstep, and its effect is quickly corrected when we see Shack quickly, and with no small amount of delectation, use his sledge hammer to dispatch a hobo who obviously is unaware of exactly whose train he has hopped. The man falls screaming beneath the moving boxcars, and the last we see of him is his body lying perpendicular across the tracks, bisected by the locomotive as it continues toward its final destination.
Our first glimpse of A-#1 (the only name by which we know Marvin’s character, by which we also immediately understand his earned status among the ‘boes riding the Oregon line) is as he emerges from the trees and eyes Shack, whose train has stopped near the hobo’s camp to make a track switch. Marvin’s world-weariness is marvelously encoded here as he trudges back through his camp, holding a live rooster by its legs— this is one of the actor’s truly great, iconic performances, and the introduction of Cigaret (Carradine), who attempts to raid A-#1 of that rooster (which the elder bum swings as a weapon to defend himself), ensures he’ll have plenty of opportunity to set his features in various degrees of stone-faced disbelief over the course of the film. Cigaret ends up following A-#1, and blowing his cover, into an empty boxcar on the #19. Forced to set the car on fire in order to escape after being locked in by Shack, A-#1 and Cigaret separate, with the young man immediately seizing the opportunity to brag to a group of railroad men about how he rode Shack’s #19 and lived to tell the tale, leaving the old guy he was with to burn to death in the car.
The word spreads to the hoboes near the yard that the railway men have discovered a new king of the road—Cigaret—and to counter the young tramp’s self-created mythology, A-#1 vows to ride the #19 all the way to Portland, proclaiming his intention in writing on the water tower outside the train station. Meanwhile, Shack himself interrupts the rail workers and their setting up a bet with Shack’s right-hand man, Cracker (Charles Tyner), a bet in which Cigaret would be used as a ringer. Aldrich expertly draws out Borgnine’s self-righteous villainy in this scene through a spectacular series of extended close-ups, emphasizing the tensile contours of the actor’s face and the lunatic fire in his bulging eyes, when Cigaret carries on his façade of arrogant toughness to the conductor’s face. Shack responds by nearly strangling the kid, until one of the workers rushes in to report that water tower message and that A-#1 intends to be on Shack’s train when it leaves at 7:00 the next morning. Thus is the movie’s central cat-and-mouse game set up— Shack’s mania to protect the ride, a locomotive aboard which his authority goes unquestioned, where he has total confidence in his ability to exercise power, a mania borne of equal parts professionalism, pride and perversity, versus A-#1, a drifter of legend (whose back story is left unspoken), who is the Emperor of the North Pole, the top of the heap, simply because those who ride the same line as he does say he is, whose only real dignity lies in the ability, even under such dire economic and personal circumstances, to do what he wants to do, what he says he’ll do, and thus remind himself of his status as a man.
Yet Aldrich never emphasizes the crude sentimental streak that courses just underneath such a conceptualizing of these characters. He resists that temptation through his own fierceness and muscularity as a filmmaker, which thrives on seeing both Shack and A-#1 as larger-than-life archetypes brought to the level of mythology (whether self-imposed or granted them by others) and as players in a larger game whose futility is the stuff of bitterness, not tears. Of all the Aldrich films I’ve seen (and I’m still missing a few key titles in his filmography), Emperor of the North looks, to these eyes, like the director’s most sustained, well-paced, crisply edited and viscerally imagined film, surely the zenith of his career as an “action director.” Notwithstanding that overly grandiose song that opens the movie on a rather discordant note, there are few, if any, of the overripe touches that mar some of the director’s other pictures, touches that often get Aldrich, whose films are as tough and calloused as the director himself purportedly was in his life, written off as a simple, vulgar misanthrope.
A masterpiece like Hustle is full of crudities that don’t fly in the eyes of those who like their policiers smoother, more even-handed, tonally consistent, and Aldrich hits like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, The Longest Yard and even Kiss Me Deadly (not to mention The Grissom Gang and The Choirboys) seem inconceivable without their wild streaks of vulgarity. Among these, Emperor of the North has an almost classical beauty, enhanced, of course, by the spectacular Oregon locales (the film was shot in and around the greater Cottage Grove area, where another classic of the rails, Buster Keaton’s The General, was also made), but also by the streamlined visual iconography of the train itself, as elemental a force as either Shack or A-#1 (sans any symbolic baggage courtesy of the writer or director), and the tracks stretching through canyons, across bridges, into the forested horizon and out of sight. And Aldrich himself, who may have taken the project on as a potential commercial picture in the wake of several flops which brought down his own independent studio, gives the movie the weight and clarity and fervor of his most personal projects through his brutal, sensitive, consistently compelling mise-en-scene, which takes advantage of all the opportunities afforded him by the film’s central vehicle and the rich locations, including brilliant exploitation of the geometry of the underside of a bridge in one of the film’s signature suspense set pieces.
An early lobby card featuring the film's original title
It may be the director’s visual acuity, or the central metaphor of two men riding the rails, their destination meaningless in the shadow of the ride itself, but from the moment the #19 sets about pulling out of that train station, in a wonderfully sustained sequence which finds the immediate area of the train station blanketed in an eerie fog (“Sounds like a ghost story to me,” intones A-#1 to Shack, who he faces off on the tracks before slipping off into the mist, awaiting his opportunity to board the locomotive), a certain malaise begins to tinge the edges of the crisp, forceful action. Shack’s violent insistence on maintaining his dominant position as an unbeatable lineman has an almost religious intensity, enough to make one speculate as to whether he could or would feel the need to sustain this kind of intensity in whatever life he might have away from the train. (Aldrich and Knopf, of course, offer no clues themselves.) Conversely, A-#1 must keep moving, in part because of the disaster of the Depression and the level to which it has brought him (and all the men who ride the rails in search of a way out of their particular misery), but also because the mythology of being Emperor of the North Pole (the film’s original title during its New York run, before it was inexplicably trimmed, presumably by the Fox marketing department) gives him the only sense of himself that means anything to him—not that he’d ever admit to holding to a concept even as slightly romantic as that one. "Don’t ever grab on unless you’re sure you can hold on,” he tells Cigaret, who takes his advice only as far as it serves him in the moment. But A-#1 has the deliberate carriage of a man who fully subscribes to that notion, and who has seen that it can serve him well. But that little matter of destination haunts the blue skies and gorgeous scenery upon which the film’s central battle finally comes to a head, and much of the power that Emperor of the North delivers, apart from the violence of its visceral action, the sounds of chain and wood and hammer on flesh, comes from contemplating the degree to which any victory claimed by the end credits is profoundly hollow.
Perhaps even more satisfying than the moment when Shack takes his fall from the flatcar (“You ain’t heard the last of me!”) is the one immediately following. Cigaret, who has passively watched A-#1 fight for his life, offering no help, waits until Shack is not longer a threat before jumping down, laughing, and proclaiming his grand plans for their future together on the rails. But A-#1 has held his last session as mentor for this unrepentantly opportunistic kid and unexpectedly tosses him off the train and into the river below. As Cigaret gasps and treads water down at the bottom of the gorge, A-#1 shouts a rather long speech denouncing him and proclaiming his own triumph, continuing long after he (or any audience) could reasonably believe Cigaret could still possibly hear:
“Stick to barns, kid! Run like the devil! Get a tin can and take up moochin’! Tackle back doors for a nickel! Tell ‘em your story! Make ‘em weep! You could have been a meat-eater, kid, but you didn’t listen to me when I laid it down! Stay off the tracks! It’s a bum’s world for a bum! You’ll never be Emperor of the North Pole, kid! You had the juice, kid, but not the heart! And they both go together! You’re all gab and no feel! And nobody can teach you that! Not even A-#1! So stay of the train! She’ll throw you under for sure! Remember me for that! So long, kid!”
His voice booming, receding as the train pulls further down the track away from the camera, gaining a slight echo, as if he were proceeding out of this reality into some other, less-defined place (which is another way of saying that place that exists, if it exists, past “The End”), A-#1 continues on so long after Cigaret is out of range of hearing his voice that it’s not hard to assume that A-#1 is crowning himself at this point, trying to eke out some meaning to the course he has set and fought for, hoping the thunderous echo of his voice against the rattling boxcars and the whooshing pines will be enough to convince himself, if no one else. Aldrich never tips his own hand, despite the film’s apparently conventional “good” over “bad” conclusion—he’s a director with enough confidence to serve up a diamond-cut genre film imbued with enough ambiguity to make the film’s bitterness linger far beyond the final frame. Emperor of the North Pole is a sterling example of Robert Aldrich, perhaps more consistently overlooked and underrated that any major director, at his most brutal, insistent and confident as a storyteller.
(Many thanks to the good folks at Destructible Man for the use of some of the screen grabs in this post, which were liberally borrowed from their brilliant visual exegesis of the movie’s sledgehammer opening set piece.)