Emperor of the North
Director Robert Aldrich was always interested in the underdog. From his most famous films, like The Dirty Dozen (1967) and The Longest Yard (1974) through to his last film, All the Marbles (1981), Aldrich was one of the great directors of David and Goliath stories. Emperor of the North (1973) is another picture about an outsider going against the grain because he just has to, and it should be no surprise that Aldrich, like many of his characters, was considered a Hollywood maverick. In this case it's hobo and world's best railroad jumper A #1 (Lee Marvin), who's fighting against tyrant railroad conductor Shack (Ernest Borgnine). Shack tells everyone that any hobo who hitches on his train will end up dead, which is enough of a challenge to interest A #1. But after a brief tangle with Shack, he gets company in Cigaret (Keith Carradine) and A #1 helps the kid out, but Cigaret then tries to suggest he's the best railroad jumper by stealing A #1's reputation. After a large pool of money is bet on who will succeed on one of Shack's latest runs, it's a battle of wills between A #1 and Shack as they trek across the Oregon railroad line, while Cigaret plays observer and annoyance. Made during the Vietnam era, it's interesting to note that Carradine's character in Emperor of the North is a young loudmouth, while Marvin (who was a veteran of the Pacific Theater) tries to teach the boy but finds him too full of himself to ultimately learn his lessons. That's as deep as the film gets, which is mostly an action picture. And as a thrill-ride, it features some wonderful stunt work: Almost all of the scenes of Marvin, Borgnine, and Carradine were done on moving trains, and it looks like they were risking their lives to get certain shots. As a battle of wills, it's fun if not cartoonish, but when it comes to Marvin, less is always more. And the film works because Lee Marvin is arguably the coolest, most minimalist bad-ass man to grace cinema. He even manages to make his character honorable and likable without having to do much of anything. Carradine and Borgnine inhabit their roles with the dimensions allowed them, but Borgnine (who every once in a while revealed that he had some real acting chops) is the sort of actor who's fascinating pug face makes for a great one-dimensional villain. Fox presents Emperor of the North in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) with Dolby 2.0 stereo and the original mono soundtrack. The transfer is excellent for a film that has long been under the radar. Extras include a commentary by Dana Polan, the film's theatrical trailer, and two TV spots. Keep-case.
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