Robert Aldrich’s Emperor of the North (1973)

December 6, 2016 | By

Rare accolades for Robert Aldrich’s 1973 cult film.

In terms of a maverick working within the studio system, Robert Aldrich seemed among the more unique, tackling a variety of genres yet gravitating towards a grimness in which the lives of most of his characters were pretty awful. Rarely were endings upbeat, and to reach the finale there had to be stark moments of cruelty.

Emperor of the North (1973) feels like a movie tailor-made for seventies audiences wanting a meaner take on the Depression, but perhaps its nihilistic outlook and odd tonal shifts weren’t welcomed by audiences wanting to see its aging two stars, Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin, in a tale lacking closure, if not a reward for hard struggle.

In 1972 Borgnine co-starred in The Poseidon Adventure, a tale where a group is violently thinned out by terrible deaths and multiple sacrifices until a handful reach the upturned belly of an ocean liner and are saved by the heroic coast guard – an epic journey compacted into ostensibly one location that provided audiences exhausted by visuals of war trauma in Asia with hope.

Emperor has none, insofar as the life of the anti-hero undergoes an improvement, because he’s content with being a top dog hobo in a world that consists of riding trains between towns, where he overnights in trash-strewn valleys on railside dumpsites. It’s an ignominious life shared by a fraternity of hobos who beat and eat their own, and railway workers whose excitement comes from betting on who lives and dies when they ride train number 19, manned by a sadist with a 100% success record of bashing hobos off his train.

Why such a tale is compelling is hard to quantify, except perhaps in its weird balance of humour, its rustic setting so beautifully captured by cinematographer Joseph Biroc, and the cast of generally un-pretty stars Marvin and Borgnine, and huge supporting cast of character veterans.

Emperor bears the DNA of a classic cult film, ignored and written-off during its release, and gradually finding its audiences as it appeared on home video and cable TV as a rarely seen, forgotten gem in Aldrich’s considerable C.V.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray sports one of Fox’s most beautiful transfers – this is really a movie that needs to be seen on a big screen in cinemas or a home projection system to appreciate its elegantly crafted nastiness – and the film may lack the legendary reputation and accolades of Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and The Dirty Dozen (1967), but it’s a fine sampling of his directorial technique and the themes which recur within his cinematic canon.

Many of his films have been released on DVD, a fair amount on Blu, but there are a few holes in Region 1 land, and one I’ll eventually cover is his last film, All the Marbles / California Dolls (1981), which I remember seeing endlessly trailered on Pay TV, and I ultimately picked up on CED, since I never managed to find a decent tape copy. So expect an upcoming  review of the film and this long-dead format in the coming weeks, assuming my vintage players survived the move.

Yes, I have two.

Coming shortly: a podcast, some related reviews, and Arrow Video’s Luciano Ercoli two-pack Death Walks Twice, sporting two of my favourite gialli.




Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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