Tuesday, July 18, 2006

It Came from Netflix! Emperor of the North Pole

One of the last great ‘70s action films has finally hit DVD in Emperor of the North Pole. Like many of that decade’s ‘car’ movies (The Driver, Vanishing Point), Emperor basically concerns a man who uses a mechanized vehicle as a tool to escape Society’s insistence on control and order. In those movies the vehicles were cars, in this, a train.

Although not quite as abstract and on-the-sleeve metaphorical as The Driver—in which the anarchy figure is known simply as the Driver and his antagonist the Detective—the Great Depression-set Emperor again features a markedly skilled anarchy figure in the character of A Number 1 (the always great Lee Marvin), sort of a legendary super-hobo. He ends up taking on the murderous order figure Shack (Ernest Borgnine), a railroad captain well known for killing any bums who try to ride his train. Indeed, when we first meet Shack he ambushes a tramp who had the temerity to jump his train. Shack smashes him in the head with a heavy metal hammer and causes the guy to slide under the moving train, cutting him in half.

Chances are that in the end these two were bound to face off, if only to prove who is king of the hill. Here, however, their meeting is forced by Cigarette (Keith Carradine), a young punk hobo who challenges A Number One’s prominence amongst their set. Cigarette follows A#1 onto Shack’s train for a short run, and almost gets them killed. They escape with their lives, but Cigarette boasts of riding Shack’s train, leaving out A#1’s part in things. This enrages Shack, and gets A#1’s dander up. The stage is set for the two men to finally directly contest each other.

One nice thing about the movie is that there really aren’t any good guys in it. A#1 is, when all is said and done, a bum and a thief. If he looks like a good guy, it’s only because Shack is such an outright evil figure. Borgnine goes to town in the role, and it’s a perfect fit for him. Aside from maybe Joe Don Baker, nobody does pure mean as good as Borgnine. He not only kills the tramps who try him, but does so with glee.

As you’d expect, the cast is enough reason to watch this film alone. Marvin is worth watching in anything, Borgnine is terrific here, Carradine is pretty good himself, and there’s a raft of familiar character actors on hand, including Vic Tayback, Charles Tyner (if you hired Lee Van Cleef when you needed a human rat, you hired Tyner when you needed a human weasel), Simon Oakland, Sid Haig, Elisha Cook Jr., Matt Clark and more. Sometimes it’s not even the face you recognize. Hearing one guy, I was like, “Ah, it’s the Narrator of The Wacky Races.” (Actor Dave Willock, in case you’re interested.)

None of these guys gets much screen time, though. That’s reserved for the three leads. You might not think you could wring enough suspense out of a small train to last two hours, but they go a good job. This is at least partly because they actually pace and pause inbetween the action scenes. Sometimes Shack succeeds in driving them off, but A#1 and Cigarette keep coming back for me.

This despite Shack vicious and inventive cruelty. At one point the bums secrete themselves in the metal struts under the movie train. In response, Shack lowers a metal plumb weight he's tied onto a line. The heavy object smacks around as it comes into contact with the ground, jumping up and threatening to pulp the trapped hobos. This is a wince-inducing scene.

For all the exploding buildings and worldwide disasters we get these days, they just don’t make ‘em as exciting as this anymore. Anyone looking for a good double bill might want to go with the similarly Depression-set Hard Times, with an absolutely terrific Charles Bronson as a bare knuckle boxer.

The newly released disc features a nice print of the film in widescreen (yay!), although the accompanying commentary by some boring academic is pretty worthless, as he even gets facts wrong and stuff like that, and spends way too much time yakking about his ill-formed theories on what the film 'means.' Seriously, they couldn't have gotten Borgnine or Carradine to do a commentary?

Now if they would just put The Naked Prey out on DVD…


At 2:09 PM, Blogger Yasser said...

sounds interesting; thanks for the review

At 2:22 PM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

I don't think you'll go wrong with this. But then, I love action movies from this era.

At 2:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Unknown Movies site had an article on this movie, and I've been interested ever since. Into the netflix queue with it!



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