“I played a railroad conductor named Shack, the most evil, sadistic scoundrel who ever existed.” So says Ernest Borgnine in his autobiography published in 2008.
Thanks to the fine folks at Speakeasy, Silver Screenings and Shadows and Satin it’s time to celebrate the villains of film. Without an actor who can light up the screen in a vicious role, our movie heroes wouldn’t look quite so impressive as they often do when given the likes of Borgnine and company cast opposite them.
1973 saw the release of the Robert Aldrich film Emperor of the North starring Lee Marvin, Keith Carradine and as the vicious Shack, Ernest Borgnine. The movie takes place at the height of the depression in 1933 when men known as hobo’s rode the rails across the country as nomads in search of work and learned to live by their wits. When riding the rails they had to dodge the “bulls”. Men who patrolled the train cars and gave no mercy to the free loaders in the box cars. Cast as Shack, Borgnine murders his first hobo before the opening credits. Hammer in hand he strikes an unsuspecting victim attempting to ride his train. The man falls beneath the wheels as the other bo’s watching from the bushes turn away dejected.
Perfectly cast as Ernie is he meets his match in Lee Marvin as a legendary hobo among the downtrodden. When young and cocky Keith Carradine begins making noise about all the supposed feats he has accomplished including briefly riding Ernie’s train, Lee is forced by ego and pride to step up and publicly announce to his fellow down and outers that he’ll be catching Ernie’s train to Portland. A betting frenzy ensues up and down the telegraph wire. Borgnine is not impressed. Least of all with the yard workers including Vic Tayback and Matt Clark.
“Boys he’s gonna be a mean S.O.B. now.”
“What was he before?”
With Marvin hopping aboard and finding young Carradine stowing away as well, it becomes a game of hide and seek on a fog shrouded morning as the freight train pulls out of the station. Serving as Ernie’s whipping boy is the man in the caboose played by Charles Tyner and when Ernie can’t locate the two men he turns his fiery gaze on his meek underling. He just doesn’t seem happy if he isn’t barking at someone.
Marvin and Keith won’t find the trip easy and quickly learn what happens to men riding under the cars. Ernie ties a lead pipe to the end of a rope and gets a huge charge out of letting the rope drag under the moving cars causing that lead pipe to jump up and cause bodily harm to our pair of hobo’s beneath the cars.
While the battle goes on between our protagonists there is also a battle of egos and wills between our aging hobo Marvin and the young cocky wanna be. While I won’t delve into that part of the film too much it’s a real pleasure to see Lee Marvin as the man of experience and worldly smarts. Despite the violence contained in the film the two competitors to ride Ernie’s train offer up quite a bit of comedy relief throughout the film.
The beating the bo’s take beneath the train lead Borgnine to victory this time out. But Lee will have another chance to ride the evil Shack’s train in what is billed on the film poster as “the Fight of the Century”. It’s a violent encounter on a moving flat bed car with plenty of bloodshed. Chains, two by fours and an axe lead to a battle of epic proportions featuring the two off screen pals.
Lee and Ernie’s careers can be traced back to the early fifties where they appeared in number of films together including the classic Bad Day at Black Rock, Violent Saturday and The Stranger Wore a Gun before joining together with Robert Aldrich for the 1967 hit The Dirty Dozen.
Like Marvin’s character A#1, Borgnine is filled with ego and pride and in order to exert himself he bullies and terrorizes both the hobo’s and any yard worker who thinks he’s man enough to stand up to him. When he knows he’s been had early on in the film he quickly passes the blame onto Matt Clark and gets away with it because his bark is bigger. He’s got respect for Marvin and little else as he tells Carradine’s mouthy youngster, “There’s only one bo who’s got the stuff to try me and you ain’t on the list.” When the word comes that Marvin’s taking another shot at riding the 19, Borgnine makes sure the train’s moving slow enough thus welcoming the climatic fight.
Early on Sam Peckinpah was attached to this depression era tale before the assured hand of Robert Aldrich took the directorial reigns. Borgnine first worked with Aldrich back in 1954 on Vera Cruz and teamed with him a total of five times. A fine job by the actors to give us a 1930’s feel here supported by the authentic looking costume designs of the hobos who live along the lines in makeshift shacks and towns. With a train as the main set piece it allows Ernie to give a very physical performance as he’s constantly roaming the cars and walking the roofs peering down looking for prey.
Hellish as Shack is as portrayed by Mr. Borgnine it’s a credit to this acting treasure that within the year he’d play the gentlest of souls in a memorable two part episode of Little House on the Prairie. When little Laura Ingalls is lost in the mountains she comes upon an angelic mountain man played by Ernie. It offers us a great contrast to Shack and if you haven’t seen this then seek it out along with this underrated Robert Aldrich thriller.