A Movie A Day #185: Emperor of the North Pole (1973, directed by Robert Aldrich)


Emperor of the North Pole is the story of depression-era hobos and one man who is determined to kill them.

The year is 1933 and Shack (Ernest Borgnine) is one of the toughest conductors around.  At a time when destitute and desperate men are riding the rails in search of work and food, Shack has declared that no one will ride his train for free.  When Shack is first introduced, the sadistic conductor is seen shoving a hobo off of his train and onto the tracks.  Shack smiles with satisfaction when the man is chopped in half under the train’s wheels.

A-No.1 (Lee Marvin) is a legend, the unofficial king of the hobos.  A grizzled veteran, A-No. 1 has been riding the rails for most of his life.  (The title comes from the hobo saying that great hobos, like A-No. 1, are like the Emperor of the North Pole, the ruler of a vast wasteland).  A-No. 1 is determined to do what no hobo has ever done, successfully hitch a ride on Shack’s train.  He even tags a water tower, announcing to everyone that he intends to take Shack’s train all the way to Portland.

If A-No. 1 did not have enough to worry about with Shack determined to get him, he is also being tailed by Cigaret (Keith Carradine), a young and cocky hobo who is determined to become as big a legend as A-No. 1.  Cigaret and A. No. 1 may work together but they never trust each other.

Like many of Robert Aldrich’s later films, Emperor of the North Pole is too long and the rambling narrative often promises more than it can deliver.  Like almost all movies that were released at the time, Emperor of North Pole attempts to turn its story into a contemporary allegory, with Shack standing in for the establishment, A-No. 1 representing the liberal anti-establishment, and, most problematically, Cigaret serving as a symbol for the callow counter culture, eager to take credit for A-No. 1’s accomplishments but not willing to put in any hard work himself.

As an allegory, Emperor of the North Pole is too heavy-handed but, as a gritty adventure film, it works wonderfully.  Lee Marvin is perfectly cast as the wise, no-nonsense A-No. 1.  This was the sixth film in which Marvin and Borgnine co-starred and the two old pros both go at each other with gusto.  Carradine does the best he can with an underwritten part but this is Borgnine and Marvin’s film all the way.  Marvin’s trademark underacting meshes perfectly with Borgnine’s trademark overacting, with the movie making perfect use of both men’s distinctive screen personas.  As staged by Aldrich, the final fight between Shack and A-No. 1 is a classic.

Even at a time when almost every anti-establishment film of the early 70s is being rediscovered, Emperor of the North Pole remains unjustly obscure.  When it was first released, it struggled at the box office.  Unsure of how to sell a movie about hobos and worrying that audiences were staying away because they thought it might be a Christmas film, 20th Century Fox pulled the movie from circulation and then rereleased it under a slightly altered name: Emperor of the North.  As far as titles go, Emperor of the North makes even less sense than Emperor of the North Pole.  Even with the title change, Emperor of the North Pole flopped at the box office but, fortunately for him, Aldrich was already working on what would become his biggest hit: The Longest Yard.

Keep an eye out for Lance Henriksen, in one of his earliest roles.  Supposedly, he plays a railroad worker.  If you spot him, let me know because I have watched Emperor of the North Pole three times and I still can’t find him.

 

Lisa Watches An Oscar Nominee: The Sand Pebbles (dir by Robert Wise)


The_Sand_Pebbles_film_posterAfter watching Witness For The Prosecution, I continued TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar by watching the 1966 Best Picture nominee, The Sand Pebbles.

Considering that The Sand Pebbles is close to four hours long, it’s interesting how little there is to really say about it.  Taking place in 1926, The Sand Pebbles follows the crew of the USS San Pablo, a gunboat that patrols the Yangtze River in China.  The San Pablo is there to protect American business interests, which are in particular danger because China is caught up in a communist revolution.  For the most part, the crew of the San Pablo are portrayed as being lazy and racist.  They have little interest in understanding the culture of the people around them and they use Chinese laborer to do the work on the boat.

When Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) is transferred to the San Pablo, he upsets his fellow crewmen by insisting on working in the ship’s engine room himself, the fear being that if Holman is willing to work then the rest of them will be expected to work as well.  The ship’s commander, Lt. Collins (Richard Crenna), views Holman as being a threat to morale and starts to make plans to get Holman off of his boat.  But, first, the boat is going to have to get out of China…

The Sand Pebbles is an episodic film and some of those episodes are more interesting than others.  Typically, an episode will start out positively and then end with some sudden tragedy.  For instance, Holman trains one laborer (Mako) to be a boxer and then watches as he beats the most racist crewman on the ship.  However, just a few minutes later, the laborer is captured and savagely tortured by the communists and Holman is forced to perform a mercy killing.

In another subplot, Holman’s only friend, Frenchy (Richard Attenborough), marries a local prostitute (Emmanuelle Arsan, who would later write an autobiography that would serve as the basis for a very different type of film).  However, in order to see his wife, Frenchy has to continually swim to shore in the middle of the night.  Frenchy soon develops pneumonia and dies while his wife is dragged off and apparently executed.

And finally, Holman strikes up a romance with Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen), an innocent missionary.  However, when her arrogant and naive boss, Jameson (Larry Gates), refuses to leave the country despite the revolution, the San Pablo is ordered to rescue them.  This, of course, leads to a final battle with the communists which leaves a good deal of the cast dead.

As I watched The Sand Pebbles, my main impression was that it was an extremely long movie.  The film’s climatic battle was exciting and Steve McQueen (not to be confused with the director of 12 Years A Slave and Shame) gave a good performance but otherwise, the film often seemed to drag.  While the movie’s theme of Americans struggling (and failing) to understand another country’s culture had a definite resonance, The Sand Pebbles did not seem to be quite sure what it truly wanted to say about it.

Let’s face it — over 500 films have been nominated for best picture.  And, while a good deal of them hold up surprisingly well and are still entertaining to watch, there’s also a handful like The Sand Pebbles, ambitious films that never quite reached their potential but were probably nominated because they seemed like the type of epic film that should be nominated.  Many of these films were nominated and a few even won.

However, in the case of The Sand Pebbles, a nomination would have to be enough.  That year, the Oscar for Best Picture was won by A Man For All Seasons.