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.