The Emperor Of The North is one of those films I can watch time and time again, and still pick up something that I have not noticed before. It is a brutal and relentless watching experience. It is also a tremendous essay on humanity, and depicts a no holds barred vision of real life during the 1930s Great Depression.
Alongside 'Twilight's Last Gleaming', I regard it as one of Robert Aldrich's best films.

Set during the Great Depression it tells the story of 'A Number One', a hobo/tramp who is a legend amongst his community as being able to go anywhere where he likes. The mode of travel for the hobo community is the steam trains of the era, and these are fantastically realised by Aldrich as noisy, monsters of iron that thunder down the tracks. With a formidable reputation among the rail workers too, Marvin's laconic 'A Number One' takes on the greatest challenge of his career when he decides to ride a train which is the preserve of a feared and terrifying guard called 'The Shack' (a demonic performance from Ernest Borgnine). Indeed, the Shack is a psychopath who maims or kills any hobos that set foot on his train, let alone attempt to ride it. To date nobody has ever done just that and the stage is set for one hell of a show down.....
Accompanying Marvin, is 'Old Cigarette' a youthful hobo played by Keith Carradine who is still learning the trade. Carradine gives a convincing performance, a nervy mix of cockiness and naivete. However, the performances of both Borgnine and Marvin dominate proceedings and are amongst both actors' very best.



Aldrich as ever, lets the detail of the period enter the film and there are many wry and ironic scenes. The scene where the current US President is broadcasting on the radio, inviting any US citizen to tell the government how they could spend their budget better, while the listeners are all tramps in squalid conditions is typical. A similarly wry scene shows a Baptist congregation in the river preaching forgiveness until they realise that their clothes have been stolen, then as a mob they go looking for vengeance....
Neither does Aldrich pulls punches with his depiction of how the railway workers view the tramps which is at best with contempt. Even the Cops are depicted as desperate victims of the times who will arrest a tramp, lock him away indefinitely, and pocket the two dollars a day that the government pays for the person's upkeep, instead of following statutory sentences and guidelines
The film is unflinchingly violent and the squeamish should probably look elsewhere.



The DVD had a pretty good transfer but I would absolutely love to see this hit Come along Fox, we are definitely waiting on this one.