A Bum's Fantasy Ride
Around the time of the movie’s release, the hell-for-leather Lee Marvin reportedly bemused, “I get a special kick playing rebels over establishment types. I’ve always been a bum, so I’m being paid to act out my fantasies.” That personal fantasy took root in the bruising, rough-and-tumble action adventure Emperor of the North (1973), which opened 44 years ago today. Lee Marvin: Point Blank biographer Dwayne Epstein sets it up: “The genesis…began with veteran screenwriter Christopher Knopf’s research into the late 19th- and early 20th-century legend of Leon R. Livingston,…who called himself ‘A No. 1,’ who claimed to have tramped the countryside from the age of 11, and had self-published several books recounting his hobo adventures. Livingston had learned the ropes from Jack London, who had the hobo name ‘Sailor Jack’ and later, ‘Cigaret.’ London also wrote about these adventures in his book The Road, with an emphasis on te social injustices perpetrated on the country’s downtrodden, and the attempt to organize ‘Kelly’s Army of 1894’ to revolt against the status quo. Knopf chose to update London’s tale to the more familiar 1930s Depression and make the social injustice more symbolic than polemic. These changes still allowed Knopf’s screenplay to include London’s graphic depiction of a tramp’s mistreatment at the hands of the railroad employees. The project went through several directors, including Martin Ritt and Sam Peckinpah, before Robert Aldrich was locked in. The folksy image of the beloved hobo was obliterated in director Aldrich’s violent fable of the individual battling the establishment. Aldrich assembled his Dirty Dozen cast and crew, which included Ernest Borgnine as the sadistic conductor Shack, who symbolized the unyielding establishment; newcomer Keith Carradine as Cigaret, the fickle and unreliable youth tramp; and as the symbol of rugged individualism, Marvin as A No. 1. Knopf fashioned a story in which Marvin bets he can ride Borgnine’s train with Carradine, alternately allying himself throughout with whomever seemed to be winning at the time.” Filming on rugged and beautiful Oregon locations by cinematographer Joseph Biroc, who scored an Oscar® nomination for Aldrich’s Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964, a Twilight Time Blu-ray title) and would soon win the honor for The Towering Inferno (1974), and mixing the rowdy and the picaresque with sturdy supporting turns by Charles Tyner, Malcolm Atterbury, Simon Oakland, Elisha Cook, John Steadman and Vic Tayback, the film builds an accumulating head of steam toward the final confrontation between long-standing co-stars Marvin and Borgnine, both of whom had absolute trust in their director. “As befits their stature as titans of the railway, the clash between A No. 1 and Shack is one of epic proportions. They meet as gladiators in the arena,” in the assessment of The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich authors Edwin T. Arnold and Eugene L. Miller, Jr. “To heighten verisimilitude, both Marvin and Borgnine agreed to shoot the scene without stuntmen or doubles: a strenuous, dangerous bit of acting. It was, as well, a complicated bit of directing, calling upon all of Aldrich’s technical skill and expertise. Marvin vividly recalled the scene: ‘We shot that flatcar scene for a total of 13 days, not all consecutively because we couldn’t do it. I mean, it was just physically impossible. But whenever we got stuck in another sequence, we could always go back to the end of an airfield where Aldrich had the railroad cars on trucks in an Indian circle. And they would go one way and the camera cars would go the other, so, in other words, you’d have a traveling train shot with a changing background. And on this flatcar, he had marked out eight positions, and so you had eight camera mounting areas. And we shot it from every plausible angle – the whole thing – for 13 days to get that fight sequence. It shows you how well prepared Aldrich was: he had his angles figured out and he knew what he was doing. He was really prepared all the time.” Epstein mentions: “Given that Marvin had always claimed to have ridden the rails as a child in the Depression, casting him in the lead proved to be a stroke of genius.” One only wonders what Marvin thought about screen rail-riding being so much exhausting and punishing work. The thrilling result, Emperor of the North on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray, rewards the effort. Through Sunday, it’s available for a limited-time 33% off original list here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/29698/EMPEROR-OF-THE-NORTH-1973SPECIAL-PROMOTION/.