Movie Review: Emperor of the North (1973)

Ultimate no-baloney-stuff hobo movie _ 9/10
Reviewed by Brian Wright

Emperor of the NorthA no. 1: You ain’t stopping at this hotel, kid. My hotel! The stars at night, I put ’em there. And I know the presidents, all of them. And I go where I damn well please. Even the chairman of the New York Central can’t do it better. My road, kid, and I don’t give lessons and I don’t take partners. Your ass don’t ride this train!

A no. 1: [At the end of the movie, A No. 1 throws Cigaret off of the train, into a pond, and shouts to him from the train] Hey kid you got no class. Hit the bums, kid. Run like the devil. Get a tin can and take up mooching. Knock on back doors for a nickel.
A no. 1: Tell them your story. Make ’em weep. You could have been a meat-eater, kid. But you didn’t listen to me when I laid it down.
A no. 1: Stay off the tracks. Forget it. Its a bum’s world for a bum. You’ll never be Emperor of the North Pole, kid. You had the juice, kid, but not the heart and they go together. You’re all gas and no feel, and nobody can teach you that, not even A-No.1. So stay off the train, she’ll throw you under for sure. Remember me for that. So long, kid.

Directed by Robert Aldrich
Story Jack London
Screenplay Christopher Knopf

Lee Marvin … A No. 1
Ernest Borgnine … Shack
Keith Carradine … Cigaret
Charles Tyner … Cracker
Malcolm Atterbury … Hogger
Simon Oakland … Policeman
Harry Caesar … Coaly

Great movie this one, and completely unexpected. The only reason I came to view Emperor of the North at this time is from performing the editing and publishing work on a book from Dr. Bo Keeley about hobos.[1] We’re introduced to a Depression-era hobo known as A No. 1 (Lee Marvin), as he’s caught and then departed a ride on one of the railroad freights ridden by a railroad bull (RR security) from Hell, a menacing man named Shack (Ernest Borgnine). I can state right away that the sadistic ridealong bull is mainly a fictional plot element intended to generate conflict and more popular interest in the story—the vast majority of RR security, even today, are reasonable persons mindful of property and personal safety. From the disclaimer on Bo’s Hobo book:

Freight hopping is potentially dangerous and is illegal. The author and publisher do not condone that anyone engage in illegal activity. The usual penalty for getting collared by ‘the bull’ is being ordered off the premises or a petty trespassing charge. The author and publisher recommend that no one hobo without permission from the railroad. Historically, freight jumping was encouraged to transport seasonal laborers… [emphasis mine]

But in this movie Shack is the villain extraordinaire, making the moral and practical achievement of the protagonist, A No. 1, even more impressive. A whole subculture is portrayed, in which exploits—such as A No. 1’s riding a train under Shack’s nose—become spread by word of mouth… or in this case, etched into a water tower. (A No. 1 scratches simply the train and time he rode, everyone in the hobo jungles knows the significance of the feat.) Still, the viewer also comes to realize that A No. 1 has deep positive underlying qualities that lend a spiritual quality to the risks he competently takes: he exudes a moral code, an ethic of the wanderer, even a focus on productive work that approach the mythical godlike figure the ‘bos refer to as Emperor of the North Pole. Another excerpt from Bo Keeley’s book:

An ethical code was created by Tourist Union #63 at its 1889 National Hobo Convention in St. Louis, Missouri:

  1. Decide your own life, don’t let another person run or rule you.
  2. When in town, always respect the local law and officials, and try to be a gentleman at all times.
  3. Don’t take advantage of someone who is in a vulnerable situation, locals or other hobos.
  4. Always try to find work, even if temporary, and always seek out jobs nobody wants. By doing so you not only help a business along, but ensure employment should you return to that town again.
  5. When no employment is available, make your own work by using your added talents at crafts.
  6. Do not allow yourself to become a stupid drunk and set a bad example for locals’ treatment of other hobos.
  7. When jungling in town, respect handouts, do not wear them out, another hobo will be coming along who will need them as bad, if not worse than you.
  8. Always respect nature, do not leave garbage where you are jungling.
  9. If in a community jungle, always pitch in and help.
  10. Try to stay clean, and boil up wherever possible.
  11. When traveling, ride your train respectfully, take no personal chances, cause no problems with the operating crew or host railroad, act like an extra crew member.
  12. Do not cause problems in a train yard, another hobo will be coming along who will need passage through that yard.
  13. Do not allow other hobos to molest children, expose all molesters to authorities, they are the worst garbage to infest any society.
  14. Help all runaway children, and try to induce them to return home.
  15. Help your fellow hobos whenever and wherever needed, you may need their help someday.
  16. If present at a hobo court and you have testimony, give it. Whether for or against the accused, your voice counts.

From Executive Hobo Appendix B: Hobo Ethical Code

Basically, the movie reflects without frills or overstatement the life and choices of a remarkable authentic human being whom many in conventional culture would label a useless misfit or ‘bum.’ This is perhaps the best role and performance of Lee Marvin’s career. By way of accent, A No. 1 is given a young rookie hobo, Cigaret (Keith Carradine), to show the ropes to. Will Ciggy make the grade? Does he have that ineffable ‘heart and soul’ that it takes… to live an ideal life in the code and tradition of the Emperor of the North? See for yourself. Emperor is quite likely the best movie—full of action, adventure, character development, moral lessons, scenery, trains, history—most of us have not seen or even heard of.

[1] Published June 2011: Executive Hobo: Riding the American Dream. Bo Keeley has also published Keeley’s Kures: Alternative remedies from the trails and trials of a world-champion hobo-adventurer. And I reviewed the Kures book on this page.

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