• Emperor Of The North

    Released by: Twilight Time Releasing
    Released on: September, 2015.
    Director: Robert Aldrich
    Cast: Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Keith Carradine
    Year: 1973
    Purchase From Screen Archives

    The Movie:

    In 1933, the Great Depression was moving full steam ahead, much like the train under the watchful eye of a man named Shack (Ernest Borgnine). This train, the #19, would be the perfect ride for all manner of hobos wanting to get out of the sticks and into Portland, Oregon but Shack would sooner smack you upside the head with a ballpeen hammer than let you ride on his train without a ticket.

    But there’s one man who can do it – a man known as A-#1 (Lee Marvin). He’s been around the block, he’s known presidents, and he’s ridden around this country answering to nobody but himself. He’s the Emperor Of The North Pole, he tells some fellow vagabonds. When A-#1 decides he’s going to ride Shack’s train into the rose city he doesn’t just set out to do it, he literally announces it by having it written at the top of a station’s water tower. Along for the ride, whether A-#1 likes it or not, is Cigaret (Keith Carradine), a young punk that’s full of himself. He’s got some rail riding skills to be sure but he’s bark is way bigger than his bite and if he knew half of what A-#1 knew, from his years of experience, he wouldn’t need to tag along. But he does, and while the younger man proves adapt at learning from the master as they travel, A-#1 is savvy enough to keep a watchful eye on the kid.

    And so with the characters set up and the plot moving along, the rest of the movie follows the on the train/off the train journey of A-#1 and Cigaret as they do their damnedest to ride that train without getting murdered by its insane conductor. And boy howdy is that conductor insane. If he’s not hitting you with a hammer he’s smacking you with a chain and if he’s not smacking you with a chain he’s tossing you under the wheels of the locomotive itself – if it cuts you in half, that’s your own fault. He’s sadistic to the point where he not only mistreats the engineer and coal man, he berates them and abuses them for being in his way.

    This might sound simple and repetitive – and to be honest, it is – but it’s NEVER dull. Aldrich paces this two hour perfectly and as the story evolves into something more than just a cat and mouse game aboard a barreling train through rough terrain, it’s impossible to turn away. The tension is gripping, the cinematography is beautiful (this was shot on location in Oregon and those authentic backdrops really help ensure that the look is ‘right’) and the score is really effective. Even if the story was lousy and the performances flat, Emperor Of The North would be worth seeing just for the visuals and the sound work alone (rarely has the clacking sound of a train been so ominous as when A-#1 and Cigaret are clinging for their lives underneath the train as Shack tries to pummel them with a steal baton attached to a rope!).

    Thankfully that’s not the case. You can read a lot into the story if you want, you can take it as an allegory for the haves against the have nots, given the time that it takes place in and the way that the characters interact it’s not much of a stretch to go there. Or you can just enjoy it as a hyper-masculine adventure story, a tale of grit and determination set against an earthy backdrop that moves like the freight train it's set upon. The cast also shine here. Borgnine is at his manic best in this picture, the obsessively cruel conductor standing out as one of his best roles, his take on it as good as anything he’s done outside of maybe The Wild Bunch. There are scenes here where you’ll almost expect him to start frothing at the mouth and while he does go completely over the top right from the start, it wouldn’t be half the movie it is if he had reigned it in. Marvin is every bit his equal, though his character is the complete opposite. Where Shack is a man with a furious anger, A-#1 is the cool, calm and collected type, the type of man whose experience and world weariness has ingrained in him wisdom capable of overcoming whatever life may throw at him. In between these two titans is a young Keith Carradine, his Cigaret a shifty type, hard to read – and he too is fantastic in the part. It’s fun to see Vic Tayback and Charles Tyner show up here in supporting roles, and keep your eyes open for small parts given to both Sid Haig and Lance Henriksen.


    Emperor Of The North debuts on Blu-ray from Twilight Time framed at 1.85.1 widescreen in a gorgeous AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer. The past DVD release of the movie looked good for its time but this new Blu-ray edition smokes it. Detail is vastly improved not just in the close up shots where you expect it but in pretty much all of the wider angle compositions as well. Colors look fantastic – you get a lot of great, lush looking greens from the Oregon scenery throughout the movie – while skin tones look dead on and black levels are rock solid. There are no problems with any compression artifacts nor is there any evidence of noise reduction or edge enhancement. Print damage is never an issue and overall the image here is excellent.

    Audio chores are handled by an English language DTS-HD 2.0 Mono track. Again, compared to the previous DVD release, we get a nice upgrade. The sounds of the train have some impressive clarity to them while the score opens up more here than it has in the past. Dialogue stays clean, clear and very audible and there are no problems to note with even a trace of hiss or distortion. Optional subtitles are provided in English.

    The main extra on the disc is an audio commentary track from film historian Dana Polan that was originally recorded for the Fox DVD release from a few years back. It’s a scholarly talk that discusses the politics of the film and the characters that inhabit it as much as it does the history of the picture itself. Polan has some interesting observations and ideas to offer, some more interesting than others. If you enjoy film theory and digging below the surface of pictures like this, you’re covered.

    Aside from that we get a theatrical trailer for the feature, a few TV spots, the film’s isolated in DTS-HD format, menus and chapter selection. The disc also comes packaged with a full color insert booklet of liner notes from Julie Kirgo, complimented by some archival images. Kirgo notes the importance of the actors to the film’s success and also details how the film was, at one point, intended to be directed by Sam Peckinpah.

    The Final Word:

    Emperor Of The North is a genuinely great adventure film made even better by some fantastic performances and some equally impressive photography. Marvin and Borgnine make for perfect foes and Carradine an effectively slippery upstart. Twilight Time’s Blu-ray debut for the film isn’t stacked with extras but it does look and sound terrific, making this one pretty much essential based on the technical merits of the presentation and the quality of the film itself.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!