Hobos encounter a sadistic railway conductor that will not let anyone "ride the rails" for free.
Nobody gets a free ride on this train! It's the great depression and the US is now home to many homeless hobos. Shack is a particularly nasty piece of work, devoid of any compassion for the homeless, he prides himself on not letting any one ride free aboard the train he conducts upon. But in the midst is hobo supreme, A No. 1, a man who is never afraid to take up a challenge, so along with Cigaret, a young wannabe legend, he sets about destroying Shack's reputation whilst furthering his own. Make no bones about it, Emperor Of The North Pole is unashamedly macho, director Robert Aldrich filling his picture with machismo beefcakes and molding a story of brawn versus brawn aboard the unlikely setting of a steam train journey. Boasting Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine (both excellent) as the twin main leads signals the films intent, yet the picture offers more than just egotistical bluster. We get a very engrossing feel of a most depressing time in history, a time when men wanted to be men but were struck down by misfortune. Some of the dialogue is very sharp, listen to Marvin's A No. 1's wry observations on the world and you know that this film has quite a bit to say. The other major thing to note is that some of the technical work is brilliant, the photography from Joseph F. Biroc is priceless, and some of the train sequences are feasts for the eyes. Aldrich's undervalued flair for action also comes to the fore here, from a near miss train crash to the defining confrontation between our two pit bull protagonists, it really is a most accomplished piece across the board. Even young Keith Carradine as Cigaret comes out with much credit, it would have been easy for him to have been lost under the sheer weight of the beef talent around him, but he holds his own and is integral to the picture's ultimate success. It's a difficult one to recommend with any great confidence because it has kind of got an acquired taste to it, but to me it remains one of the 70s hidden treasures. Simply put it's a film that I'm always going to have the utmost regard for. 9/10