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VIDEO ESSAY: BEAVER'S LODGE: EMPEROR OF THE NORTH POLE

Video
by Jim Beaver
July 11, 2012 12:58 AM
22 Comments
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This will be the first installment of BEAVER'S LODGE, a weekly series of video essays narrated by actor Jim Beaver which will offer critical takes on some of Beaver's favorite films. Jim Beaver is an actor, playwright, and film historian. Best known as Ellsworth on HBO’s Emmy-award winning series DEADWOOD and as Bobby Singer on SUPERNATURAL, he has also starred in such series as HARPER'S ISLAND, JOHN FROM CINCINATTI, and THUNDER ALLEY and appeared in nearly forty motion pictures. You can follow Jim on Twitter.

I love this movie. Let's get that out of the way before I start in on a rant about studio stupidity.

This film is about hobos riding the rails of Depression-era America. It was made and originally released as Emperor of the North Pole. After initial screenings, Twentieth Century Fox executives feared that audiences might think the title indicated a Christmas movie (!) or an Arctic exploration story and so shortened the title to Emperor of the North, a change that made little sense in terms of audience expectations and none at all in light of the fact that "Emperor of the North Pole" is a hobo term used extensively throughout the film. To be emperor of the North Pole, in hobo jargon, is to be king of the road. To be emperor of the north means some idiot is in charge of the title.

This is a tough little picture, directed by Robert Aldrich, no stranger to tough little pictures (Kiss Me Deadly, The Dirty Dozen). It is written by Christopher Knopf (a true gentleman, by the way), reportedly from stories by Jack London. It stars Lee Marvin as the toughest 'bo on the rails and Ernest Borgnine as the meanest man ever to run a train. Keith Carradine is a windy, self-important, and callow kid who thinks he can play with the big boys. Borgnine's Shack is the conductor on #19, a freight train plying the rails of the Pacific Northwest. His driving passion is to prevent hobos from stealing free rides on his train, and he's willing to kill and maim to stop them. Marvin, as "A-No. 1," decides to ride the 19 and show Shack just who is Emperor of the North Pole.

Marvin is just about perfect in this gritty film. His makeup, his wardrobe, his demeanor, everything about him screams 1930s tough guy on the bum. There's no glamor to this star turn. The same can be said for Ernest Borgnine, though glamor admittedly was never his strong suit. Borgnine was one of the most decent men in Hollywood, but when he played a heavy, there were few nastier fellows in the business. His intensity and cruelty as the obsessed Shack are brilliantly delineated. Keith Carradine is irritating as Cigaret, the peacock kid who thinks he's as tough as they come. But he's supposed to be irritating, and it's a fine performance.

This is also one of those films that pulls together a passel of great character actors (Elisha Cook Jr., Malcolm Atterbury, Charles Tyner) and leaves one wondering where all the wonderful, familiar faces that used to populate Hollywood films have gone, and why we don't see such collections of comfortably resonant characters so much anymore. (I think I know why, but that's corporate talk, for another discussion.)

Most of the action takes place on board the train, and some of it is harrowing. Of particular note is the fact that most of the leading actors put themselves at some extended risk in the making of the film. Long before CGI special effects made such things meaningless, it's clear in this movie that it really is Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, Keith Carradine, and Charles Tyner walking, running, and clambering on, around, and UNDER a speeding train. Surely safety measures were taken, yet it's wonderful to see shots where one misstep could have cost a star, not a stuntman, his life--even as it's good to know nothing like that happened.

Aside from my disgust with the stupidity of the title change, and a couple of too-cutesy moments in the music and a river baptism scene, Emperor of the North Pole is a favorite of mine, an exciting film as tough as old leather and as harsh as the era it depicts. And it's got Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, two of the hardest hard cases in movies, going head to head. It's a great ride.
 

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22 Comments

  • marcela | July 14, 2012 2:29 PMReply

    Que grandes actores, que buenas imagenes y que linda voz de fondo la de JIM.Muy bueno!!!!

  • Jodi Hall | July 13, 2012 5:24 PMReply

    Amazing review. One of my favorite movies is The Dirty Dozen so im a fan of Lee Marvin.. Cant wait for next week :)

  • Amanda | July 13, 2012 10:51 AMReply

    Wonderful review, Jim. I really enjoyed it. I will definitely be back here next week. =]

  • Sheila | July 13, 2012 12:25 AMReply

    Im a 42 yr old married mother of 2 and I have MS. I was raised on westerens and old movies. My memory isnt what it use to be although I believe ive seen this movie b4. Having said that u brought things to light for me that I hadn't thought of b4... Like the wonderful actors that played in this movie that didn't get the recongnization they deserved... Thank u so much for this wonderful review, Jim! I always love to read your reviews, but it's even more fantastic to hear them read by you! U have the perfect voice and intelligence to continue to do these reviews... I'll be back next week for more of ur intelligence and ur wonderful voice narrating these classic movies. Thank u again for the time and hard work u put into each of these... Lots of love, Sheila

  • Amy | July 12, 2012 11:13 PMReply

    I really enjoyed this review Jim, I'm a big fan of Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, having been raised on old movies - particularly those gritty actioners with Marvin.
    Your point regarding the cavalcade of familiar faces that the Hollywood movies used to have is such a good one. I miss seeing movies where you know that guy, even though you may not know who that guy is.
    I loved hearing your naration, you're very easy to listen to.
    This is a fantastic idea and I'm looking forward to your next review - Amy

  • Judi Hymen | July 12, 2012 6:54 PMReply

    Oddly I've never heard of this film but it looks really good and I will check it out.

  • mike schlesinger | July 12, 2012 6:42 PMReply

    A lovely piece on one of the finest movies of the 70s. Many years ago, I happened to come across cinematographer Joseph Biroc, and told him how much I loved his work, especially EMPEROR. He thoughtfully puffed his cigar for a few moments and then quietly said, "Yeah, I kinda like it, too."

    BTW, did you know this was shot on the same locations Keaton used for THE GENERAL?

  • Scott Anderson | July 12, 2012 6:23 PMReply

    The thing that sets Jim Beaver apart from the other actors: he's intelligent.

  • Jim Mickol | July 12, 2012 12:49 PMReply

    I love the realism of this movie and, of course, the depth of characters and the actors who play them. Much the same sentiments I have for Deadwood.

  • Dee Dee Dube' | July 12, 2012 2:35 AMReply

    Man, that was a great review! I remember seeing this movie with my dad at the drive-in as a kid and being totally frightened by Borgnine. I never watched it again, he scared me that much which is the testament of a great actor to leave such an impression. A few years back, I met Ernie at a Book Expo. A friend's mother worked with him in the 40's in summerstock. Said friend asked if I would take him a letter and some photos of her mom and Ernie from back in the day. I did. He was so lovely and excited about the packet and thanked me for being its carrier. Ernie not only called my friend but invited her and her family to visit him on the set of Red and took them to lunch, reminiscing about her mom who had passed a few years earlier. He shared stories they didn't know about their relative. You are right Jim, an incredibly decent as well as kind man.

  • Jodie | July 12, 2012 2:10 AMReply

    A wonderful review, Jim! I always love to read your reviews, but it's even more fantastic to hear them read by you!

  • Paulette | July 12, 2012 1:22 AMReply

    Thanks Jim I don't think I have seen any of the older movies in such a very long time. I hope I will be able to rent or buy it because I sure would like to see it I look forward to seeing next weeks review.

  • Amanda | July 12, 2012 1:19 AMReply

    I really enjoyed your review, Jim, and I'm looking forward to checking out this film. I will certainly be back here next week!

  • Glissy Vega | July 11, 2012 11:52 PMReply

    This absolutely amazing; the way you review the movie make me want for more; including to watch the movie. Thanks Jim for gives me a piece of something you like. I will be here every Wednesday.

  • Melanie | July 11, 2012 10:11 PMReply

    I'm impressed by the narration and by your pick of film. This was a great one, that I've seen with my pa many times. Makes me want to watch it, again. So, I think I will.

  • Jay Brazeau | July 11, 2012 7:55 PMReply

    Wonderful review Jim and an excellent choice. You have such an incredible taste in film. I look forward to reading more. You have my "thumbs up" at the Lodge.

  • Sandy | July 11, 2012 7:53 PMReply

    Enjoyed your narration , looking forward to your next one.. I prefer to watch older movies myself don't think I ever saw this one .. see ya next week !

  • Lisa | July 11, 2012 7:22 PMReply

    Excellent review, and you have a great voice for doing video essays like this. I will be back next week!

  • Michael | July 11, 2012 5:28 PMReply

    This must be my day. I was just thinking about this film and looked up and watched the trailer online. Then I came round here to indiewire and wow. I used to see this film as a kid on tv, ABC specifically, on their Sunday Night Movie. I saw it four or five times on tv and wish I could see it on the bigscreen. Aldrich was certainly an interesting guy. Those movies you mentioned, plus Flight of the Phoenix and of course, The Longest Yard, both of which has sadly been remade with lame results. You're totally right about studio blockheads. Today, they're even blockier.

  • Jared | July 11, 2012 3:18 PMReply

    Oh boy am I excited for this feature. My girlfriend recently unearthed some late 70s issues of Film in Review she found on eBay a few years ago, and I've been loving reading the articles written by Mr. Beaver. More please!

  • Wallace Stroby | July 11, 2012 3:17 PMReply

    Great piece. Saw this at a drive-in in 1973 (age 12), and it's been one of my favorite films since. The comic elements (and the jaunty music) always seemed a little out of place, but it's one of Borgnine's best performances. The original trailer - with the original title - is an easter egg on the DVD. Just go to the Special Features menu and click on Borgnine's hammer.

  • JT Cogburn | July 11, 2012 12:06 PMReply

    This was spectacular!
    Thank you Mr. Beaver. I've GOT to find "Emperor of the North" and watch it.

    JT Cogburn

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