I’ll never forget the opening sequence of the 1960 film The Magnificent Seven, the western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Sumarai. This is not because of the Elmer Bernstein Marlboro Man theme music. Nor is it due to later memorable lines like the nefarious villain Eli Wallach’s one, “Can men in our profession worry about such things? If God didn’t want them to be sheared, he would not have made them sheep.” Rather, I remember as the bandidos galloped into the Mexican village and the titles flashed up on the screen, my father Mogs muttered, “Look’s like the Magnificent Forty-Three.” This comment was made in the relative discomfort of the used and unreliable French sedan at the Durban Drive-In. There was no theatre audience to shush him up, other than his family.
Trips to the drive-in suited Mogs’s wallet, and as a kid I saw more movies in the rear seat of the auto (either a Peugeot or a Citroen) along with my two sisters and my parents in the front, than in the back row of any cinema. The short end of the stick reigned supreme on our semi-regular Friday evenings at the drive-in. Numerous things could and would go wrong: parking too far away from the pole so that the speaker couldn’t reach the car window; choosing the only speaker that wouldn’t work after all the other spaces had been taken; finding out in the midst of a downpour that the windshield wipers were useless; the engine not turning over at the end of the film because of a flat battery, due to overuse of the wipers; driving off with the speaker still connected to the car; my mother Leah giving those dagger-like glares to my dad; departing though the entrance gate and meeting all of the late show customers head-on; finally waiting in an exit row that wound up going nowhere but except smack up against the wall of the screen. We would inevitably be the last car to leave. The driving in part was a whole lot easier than the drive out.
When Mogs’s long-distance eyesight started to go on the blink, he took to squinting at the show through his binoculars, a gadget he used regularly to scout out his losing racehorses from outside of the track. This created a different set of complications. He often zeroed in on the bedrooms of the block of flats located directly behind the screen of the Umbilo Drive-In. Everything that the rabid South African censors would have cut out of the film then took place for him in real time…sex, violence, drinking, self-abuse and drug consumption, magnified by the Leica binoculars. The problem was that the rest of us would actually be watching a nighttime rustling scene in an old Alan Ladd cowboy movie. With comments like “What’s all this about then?” Mogs would conclude that another Hollywood gimmick was afoot, but that he wasn’t fooled.
The drive-in episodes also marked my introduction to the films that Lee Marvin acted in, and I became an immediate fan. I’m not sure why, but my fascination with his persona and mug has never gone away. I would like to think it was youthful celluloid hero worship or just an affinity for somebody who could pull off the bad guy role with effortless panache and decorum, but it had to be something more than that because I am still a sucker for watching them. And this is a story about one of those later films, the Robert Aldrich directed movie entitled Emperor of the North Pole (1973).
Emperor of the North Pole is set during the early 1930s, the period of the Great Depression in America. Lee Marvin plays A#1, a veteran hobo who drifts through the north west, his primary mode of transport being freight trains. He is a master at fooling the railroads, and is regarded as the best train hopper in the larger hobo community. His nemesis is Shack (Ernest Borgnine), a cruel and sadistic train boss or captain, who takes pleasure in tormenting the homeless folk that try and ride his rig. Shack uses chains, hammers, heavy leaded coupling devices connected to rope that bounce up and down and cause grievous bodily harm, steam hoses, and axes to maim and sometimes kill the uninvited passengers. Shack enjoys his work. He has the reputation of running a hobo free train.
The term “Emperor of the North Pole” refers to the pickle and mess that the hobos were in. Those who considered themselves to be top notch hobos might survey the terrain around themselves from the North Pole and claim dominion over it, but in reality what surrounds the North Pole is a barren wasteland of ice, nothing. For whatever reasons, the film producers shortened the release title here to Emperor of the North. Perhaps the original one struck a nerve. Maybe it was just a word too long.
The main storyline is the locking of horns between A#1 and Shack. A#1 brazenly scrawls on the station water tower that he will ride the Number 19 (Shack’s train) all the way to Portland. A#1 has called Shack out. Shack is hated in the hobo jungles and not too well liked by the railway worker underlings and his own train crew who are bullied by him as well. However, A#1 is altogether revered by his peers. As he tries to board the No.19 one foggy morning, gangs of hobos hidden in the underbrush near the track let loose with derisive catcalls aimed at Shack…”Hey Shack, Guess who? It’s the big bad bo,” or “Shack, you got as much chance as a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.” This is all rather gratifying.
The entire area’s population gets worked up about the ensuing conflict. Betting odds are established. Railroad men, housewives, barflies, boozehounds and hustlers all spend their meager savings on wagers. The telegraph buzzes and towns in the hinterland that aren’t even part of the railroad network join in on the gambling spree. It’s a right old free for all.
For the next two hours on screen, A#1 and Shack wage battle. Railway tracks are greased, collisions with high-speed passenger expresses are narrowly avoided, points are changed to alter the course of trains, and boxcars are set alight. A#1 hides in large corrugated tin pipes on board to avoid detection. Shack (the Big Hurt) meanwhile uses all of the weapons at his disposal to inflict maximum pain.
Police play a role and A#1 entices a buffoonish one portrayed by Simon Oakland (another one of those “you gotta face” actors from back then) into a hobo encampment only to belittle the policeman in front of all the jungle residents. A#1 pretends that the stolen turkey he is being chased for is really a dog and forces the scared cop to acknowledge this absurdity and actually bark at the turkey, much to the glee of the onlookers, all hobos. The scene ends with A#1 offering the law officer (a confessed teetotaler) a shot of moonshine. The cop swallows it and runs terrified from the camp. A#1 surmises, “What is the world coming to? There’s a President who is allowed to steal, we go to the rock pile for stealing, and now we’ve got a cop who doesn’t drink.” Support for the underdog beats loudly in this film.
Along the way, A#1 picks up a young loudmouth upstart rail rider, Cigaret (Keith Carradine). Cigaret is generally an annoyance, more trouble than help, but he does allow for A#1 to impart the odd pearl of wisdom…”Kid, the country’s going to hell.”
Lee Marvin is tailor made for this role. He’s got the chiseled visage, the greying stubble, the crew cut, the traditional working man’s cap, the lace-up black waffle stomper boots, a vast array of homemade tools, a shitload of tricks up his sleeve (like cauterizing his burns with axle grease), a lifetime of experience outwitting the man, and the craggy voice of someone who has lived a hard life. Emperor of the North Pole is one of his more unsung films and was not well received by the movie literati crowd. It was considered too much of a blowtorch exercise. I beg to disagree with them. If you haven’t seen it, put it on your list. You might feel a wee bit pulverized, but you won’t be bored. It’s premier drive-in material (A#1 stuff).