Twilight Time Movies: ‘Emperor of the North Pole’ (1973)

❉ Nick Clement reviews Twilight Time’s limited edition Blu-Ray titles.

I find myself frequently coming back to Emperor of the North Pole, aka Emperor of the North, as it’s an exceedingly masculine film and the sort of picture that simply would never be made in today’s movie landscape. You can smell the cinematic machismo and full-blown testosterone dripping off of Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine all throughout this beefy action-adventure from man’s man director Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen, Kiss Me Deadly, The Flight of the Phoenix, The Longest Yard, …All the Marbles). Released in 1973, this stunningly photographed train adventure is set during the height of the great depression, and centers on a wise hobo named A-No.-1 (Marvin) who battles it out with a sadistic train conductor named Shack (Borgnine) for supremacy aboard the deadly locomotive. Shack doesn’t allow any transients to catch a free ride on his train, and he’s more than happy to smash a bum in the head with his hammer and throw them under the wheels to their death. But look out for A-No.-1, because he’s the sort of guy who will go to to toe with you while wielding a live chicken. The film would make for an interesting pairing with Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory, as they both explore ramshackle hobo life.

There is a rugged physicality to Emperor of the North Pole, and almost all of it feels authentic and shot on location on real trains. Done in the days well before filmmakers could dial-up whatever they wanted with the help of computers, the sense of old-school-cinema that comes with this motion picture is another one of its many pleasures. The crisp Oregon backdrops lend verisimilitude to all of the action, while the stunt-work is consistently ridiculous, with numerous leaps and tumbles and dust-ups all preformed organically and with a minimum of fuss; I’ll never understand how nobody fell to their death while making this movie. There’s also a crude sensibility and rough disposition to narrative, with Christopher Knopf’s straight forward and tough-talking screenplay (with un-credited story contributions by Jack London) containing some real gems of dialogue, while the final moments of the film carry a witty and defiant streak of ironic, introspective humor.  Apparently Knopf wasn’t psyched about the finished product, and released a book which hems closer to his original intent (I’ve not read this yet…). And without spoiling the fun, it’s hard not to mention the thoroughly bad-ass climactic smack-down between Marvin and Borgnine; while watching, ask yourself, which two contemporary actors could you see doing this very same scene these days? The answer: Nobody.

Keith Carradine’s memorably skeevy performance as Cigaret was his second overall, and he brought an uneasy charm to his role as that of a rookie train-rider who crosses paths with the taciturn Marvin, who it must be said, utterly destroys every scene as the surly A-No.-1. The supporting cast includes solid turns from Charles Tyner, Matt Clark, Liam Dunn, and Malcolm Atterbury, while Frank De Vol’s triumphant (if oddly overly-spirited) score pounds away during the action, but smartly relents in key spots. Cinematographer Joseph F. Biroc, a frequent Aldrich collaborator, really shot the hell out of this motion picture, with certain sequences sort of defying technical logic considering the era that the film was produced in, while the entire endeavor feels dangerous while looking beautiful. This is a true piece of bad-boy cinema that really deserves to be rediscovered, and as usual, the restoration team at Twilight Time has done a splendid job with the picture transfer and sound mix. Biroc’s rugged and very film-stocky visual aesthetic is well served on this Blu-ray release, with strong colors that never feel overly-digitized, in 1080p High Definition, and in the film’s original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The audio mix suits the era that the film was produced in, and is presented in English 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The disc is Region Free and limited to 3,000 copies. Special features include an Isolated Score Track, and Audio Commentary with Film Historian Dana Polan, the Original Theatrical Trailer, and TV Spots.

❉ Twilight Time Movies release classic catalogue Blu-ray and DVD titles available for a limited time, exclusively in limited runs of 3000 copies. For more information, visit

❉ Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott, and co-operates the website Podcasting Them Softly.

❉ He is also a regular contributor for, a site dedicated to providing the best news and analysis on viral marketing and ARG campaigns for films and other forms of entertainment.


Become a patron at Patreon!