artwork created for retroCRUSH and (c) 2005 by Johnny Ryan

"But now I am going to show you what happens
to people who ride on my train without a ticket!"
-Shack, "Emperor of The North"

One day, I got an email from Johnny Ryan, who had just read my Keith Carradine interview, and he heartily recommended that I should see a 1973 film he was in called Emperor of the North.  His praise was intriguing:

"It's really terrific. Lee Marvin plays "A#1", King of the Hobos! Ernest Borgnine is great as the bloodthirsty, hobo-hating train conductor. And when I say he hates hobos, I ain't kiddin'!! He beats them to death with a lead pipe if he catches them sleeping on his train. And he calls them "dirty 'bos". The movie ends, of course, with a brutal face-off between Borgnine and Marvin on a moving train. Carradine plays a young, untrustworthy kid trying to learn the ropes of being a master-hobo from Marvin."

As luck would have it, AMC happened to be showing it on TV just a few days later, and after seeing if for myself, I can tell you it's easily become one of my favorite movies. 

The opening scene sets the wonderful tone for the film.  Ernest Borgnine, dressed in his black conductor's outfit, inspects his train that's about ready to start moving down the rails.  Several hobos peek behind the bushes like alcohol-soaked Ewoks, all too scared to jump the train.  But we don't know just why.  As the train pulls away, a sneaky tramp darts out and jumps inbetween two of the cars.  Borgnine sees him out of the corner of his eye, and laughs with glee and he scurries alongside the cars and surprises the hobo with a mini sledgehammer strike to his skull while the poor sap is munching on a sandwich.  A couple more hits sends the hobo falling to his doom, with a gruesome camera angle showing his body flopping around underneath the cars.

The movie is fantastic and I can't believe it's not in print any longer.  Ernest Borgnine is deliciously evil as the hobo-hating Shack who'd rather brutally smash someone to bits than give him a free ride.  His methods of getting rid of freeloaders are incredibly sadistic.  To dispose of a "bo" who's hanging underneath a car, he lowers a cable with a giant lead weight along the tracks, and the thing bounces up and down as the train races along until it finds the unsuspecting hobo, with bone crunching consequences.

Lee Marvin plays A #1, a veteran hobo who wants to achieve immortality by becoming the only guy to actually sneak a free-ride on Shack's watch.  Keith Carradine is a wet behind the ears young hobo that's trying to make a name for himself, soon, but ends up causing trouble of his own as he tries to assist.   It all ends with a crazy showdown on the train with Marvin vs. Borgnine with some of the most ridiculously fake bloody wounds I've ever seen.  A true trash film classic!

The movie is directed by Robert Aldrich, who brought us such classics as The Longest Yard, The Dirty Dozen, and a crazy female wrestling movie with Peter Falk called All The Marbles that I just love.  The story has a great mythical comic book quality to it, and it's surprisingly violent for such an early 70s non-exploitation movie.  Also fans of vintage steam trains will not be disappointed, as the engine in this film, set in the early 30s, is a thing of beauty, as is the gorgeous countryside that is shown western countryside that is shown throughout.

Unfortunately the film is out of print, but you can catch it on AMC this Friday at 6:30AM EST/3:30 PST.  So set your TIVO's up now.  You'll be glad you did!  CLICK HERE for details.

-Robert Berry




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