"Emperor of the North" fits in the category of being one of the best films you have probably never seen. I saw it on late night television something like 25 years ago, but I never forgot it. Just recently (2008), I discovered it (by chance) on DVD. From what I've managed to glean on the internet, it appears it was released (under the title "Emperor of the North Pole") for something like ten days before disappearing into obscurity, only to be re-released a few years later with its present truncated title before disappearing once again into oblivion. Yet, among those who have managed to see it, it carries a great reputation and is frequently cited as being some of Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine's best work.
The outline of the story is quite simple. It is the story of hoboes in the late 20s/early 30s, trying to hitch rides across America in an effort to find work. These hoboes became a marginalised breed apart, developing their own rules, customs and language, while in the process being considered inferior by those fortunate enough to still have employment during the Great Depression. More particularly, it is the story of A No.1, a celebrated hobo (considered by many to be the "Emperor of the North Pole", a title signifying mastery of the craft of the hobo), who throws down the gauntlet of challenge to Shack, the railroad man who is willing to go to any lengths to ensure a hobo does not get a free ride on his train. A No.1 is joined in his quest by Cigaret, a cocky young hobo with ideas well above his station and an ego to match.
So, we have what purports to be an action film involving sympathetic characters opposing quite unsympathetic characters using cunning and humour. It is also, however, a depiction of the time, human spirit, defiance and courage. It also works as an allegorical tale of man's willingness (or unwillingness) to lend a fellow human being a helping hand, social position, and the purpose of our journey through life as the train offers a means to finding work, success and hope.
Although A No.1 succeeds in the end, it is something of a hollow victory as nothing has really changed in real or global terms, but it remains nonetheless a personal victory, and one is forced to consider the possibility that in the end this is all A No.1 could really hope for as the defeated Shack calls out that he (A No.1) hasn't heard the last of him (or someone like him, perhaps). The journey goes on, though it may be lightened by sweet and memorable moments of personal success. Cigaret is abandoned, rejected by A No.1 who did his best to mentor him, but Cigaret didn't have the heart to really profit from his teaching - he remained profoundly self-centred. The purpose of the journey has been forgotten by all those concerned, in favour of defending personal principle. These men will not change - they cannot persuade one another of their "cause", and so they are forced into personal conflict.
The characters are seen only in terms of this conflict and the challenge that draws them together. We see Shack only at work and we see A No.1 and Cigaret as hoboes. Granted, we see the latter two in more social contexts than Shack, but even these contexts are integral to their lives as hoboes. Our view of this conflict is undiluted by seeing Shack in a family context, or seeing A No.1 and Cigaret actually seeking employment (which might have lent them dignity, and Shack humanity). It is clear, however, where our sympathies should lie as A No.1 is revealed to be intelligent, thoughtful, caring, loyal and principled, while Shack appears to take pride in his position and in showing no consideration for others. He sticks to the letter of the law and makes no attempt to see the bigger picture and offer help to his fellow man. Instead, he sees things in the narrowest of terms - he has been set the task of ensuring no-one rides free on the train, and any attempt to violate this is seen as a personal challenge. He embodies the adoption of a protective position in society, defending his train (and society?) from "abuse", but showing no trace of tolerance, sympathy or consideration for his fellow man.
The film is fundamentally the story of this conflict between the two men, taken to dramatic excess combined with touching and amusing reflections on human nature, society and life. There are a couple of amusing interludes during which the police are shown to have no authority unless everyone is willing to accept that authority, and a baptism sequence which gently pokes fun at the inadequacies of religion in the face of the grim reality of the need to survive and find work. By and large, the rest of the film focuses on the war of wit and wile between Shack and A No.1.
As I write this, I am reading a book which contains reference to the activities of HUAC in the 1940s, 1950s and into the early 1960s, and I can't help but be struck by the fact that this film is a fine example (released in 1973) of thought-provoking and socially challenging works that could have been lost to us through excessive political fervour and blinkered vision.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page - I hope you found it of some interest.
I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .