Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Emperor of the North (Robert Aldrich, 1973)


This is a reminiscence by one of us Maciste boys, with just a hint of wistful reflection:

It was early summer, 1973. The sky was a piercing, cloudless blue. The air was crisp and cool. A perfect day for a couple of eight-year-old boys to play outside. Not a chance. Mom had the car and I wanted to go to the movies! So I called my buddy Dave up and off we went to the neighborhood Mann's Fox Theater to see a matineé of CHARLOTTE’S WEB!

Now, I had seen CHARLOTTE’S WEB about ten times already and wouldn’t've minded seeing it twenty more. I loved the cheery tunes, the lively, funny characters and sequences --

-- Templeton the Rat’s carnival gorgefest was a particular favorite --

-- and the wonderful upbeat message about friendship and perseverance during the tough times in life.

This particular afternoon, my mom could only drop us off at the theater, so Dave’s mom would have to pick us up. Turned out, his mom couldn't get us until a couple of hours after CHARLOTTE’S WEB was over... so... naturally... the only thing Dave and I could do was see the movie that was playing immediately following the kid’s matineé... and that movie was something called EMPEROR OF THE NORTH POLE!

Sounded good to us. We had never heard of EMPEROR OF THE NORTH POLE. Had to be a fantasy, right? Probably had something to do with Santa Claus fighting an evil genius for control over the North Pole like THE CHRISTMAS THAT ALMOST WASN’T (Rossano Brazzi, 1966) --

-- another matineé that Dave and I had obsessed over during the holiday seasons. And this one starred Ernest Borgnine, whom we both loved on TV in McHALE'S NAVY.

Borgnine was one funny dude! So we were psyched to stay over for EMPEROR OF THE NORTH POLE...

"Hush, hush sweet Charlotte..."

Here’s how it went down: CHARLOTTE’S WEB ends. We’re up, up, up! Dave and I noticed that our friends from school, two really cute identical twin sisters - Lisa and Alana - were in the audience with their mom. We were so excited about this fantasy about the takeover of the North Pole that we were able to persuade their mom to let them stay over with us through the next feature. Dave’s mom wouldn’t mind dropping them home when she picked us up -- they lived down the street from me, anyway.

We were all so happy after CHARLOTTE --

-- eating our popcorn and candy --

-- singing the songs --

-- and laughing to tears as we went over all the scenes from the movie we had seen only moments before...

...But soon, there would be tears of a different kind...

...and all due to something that we here at DM preoccupy ourselves with now as adults on this very site...

So travel back with me to that fateful moment... the theater went dark for a second time that afternoon...

After informing us, via a pre-STAR WARS crawl, of the desperate plight of the hobos during the Great Depression of the 1930's, we are immediately introduced to a nice, innocuous 'bo who literally crawls out of the woodwork to hop the first train that comes by.

But this ain't just anybody's train... It's Shack's train!

Shack (Ernest Borgnine) is the seasoned train bull -- or railway cop -- whose primary objective is to prevent anyone -- especially hobos --

-- from stealing a free ride...

The carefree 'bo hops onto the train. Thinking he's just another shadow on a sunny day.

In fact, he really does become a shadow --

-- a grim foreshadowing of a more aggressive transformation about to occur.

But shadows aren't invisible...

...and nobody --

-- not even a shadow --

-- rides Shack's train for free!

Our 'bo peacefully settles in for a little lunch...

-- until Shack adds a little extra iron to our sunny-day friend's diet.

One swift clock on the noggin with a ball-peen hammer initiates the transformation...

...from character/actor/stuntman... tumbling dummy... new meaning to the phrase, "riding the rails".The transformation is witnessed on both sides of the fence --

--by the law whose code is cold and hard and unyielding --

-- and by the 'bos whose human condition is simultaneously transformed, metaphorically --

-- spiritually --

-- and physically --

-- into the realm of the mythic.

Forever a creature that is part man --

-- and part, the blood soaked railways that they were willing to fight to the death to ride.

And that was my first conscious acknowledgment of Robert Aldrich.

If, by the age of 8, I had already lost faith in God, then Robert Aldrich had proven to me, with this film --

-- and a mind-scarring dummy-death --

-- the existence of Heaven on Earth.

In reflection: this introduction to this master’s art was indeed an ironically appropriate one.

Let’s look back to CHARLOTTE'S WEB for a brief moment: what’s the story here?

Wilbur the piglet is saved from the slaughterhouse by a vigorous campaign to prove himself more than just a source of a tasty meal. With the help of a spider skilled in writing webs in the English language and a few close barnyard friends, Wilbur's life is spared as everyone recognizes him to be "some pig".

At this stage in his career, Aldrich hadn’t had a big screen hit since THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967) five years earlier.

His previous film, ULZANA'S RAID (1972) told the story of an aging American Indian chief with a ”cruel sense of humor“ named Ulzana who goes on a savage killing rampage in order to strengthen his power with that stolen from the soul of his victims.

Aldrich was clear where his sympathies lay at the age of 55. Aldrich was Ulzana -- an aging cinema chief with a cruel sense of humor who now had to fight for respect in a changing, more youth-oriented Hollywood. And he was more than willing to fight for that respect.

Like Wilbur, winning the battle to be spared a trip to the sausage factory, Aldrich would have one last big blockbuster in him with the phenomenally successful THE LONGEST YARD (1974) the very next year.

But if one watches the more substantial, complex and texturally rich (but no less brutal) EMPEROR OF THE NORTH POLE (almost immediately retitled EMPEROR OF THE NORTH),

then we are sure that you would agree with us here at DESTRUCTIBLE MAN as we firmly proclaim that Robert Aldrich had, indeed, already proven himself to be ”SOME PIG“.

Thanks for the memories, Bob!

© Paramount Pictures/EMPEROR OF THE NORTH © 20th Century Fox
post © Howard S. Berger & Kevin Marr


Arbogast said...

Haw haw! This reminds Arbogast of the time he was a 10 year old bugger and the projectionist at my local cinema put on BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS instead of BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES. But come to think of it, I don't rightly know which one of these classics is less soul-scarring.

Anonymous said...

Great stuff! Bring on THE LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD and the screaming six-year-olds!

The Flying Maciste Brothers said...

I wonder if this means something: all 3 films mentioned above I saw at the Mann's Fox Theater! BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES was absolutely traumatic for me. I barely knew what a paper-cut or a skinned knee was, let alone having to figure out the image of a bunch of guys peeling their faces off or watching two friends duke it out with spiked truncheons! THE LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD was a "GP"-rated wonder featuring gang-rape, evisceration, flaying the skin from man and monkey alike and other assorted tortures. APES was rated "G". DOLLS was "X" - but nobody was aware of camp being a conscious element back in 1970 - my mom thought it was a sequel to the Jacqueline Suzanne bestseller which was in our bathroom for a gazillion years and I liked the poster, so my Mom rallied for the theater owner to let us in to see it. "If he's old enough to ask to see it, then he's old enough to see it." My mom yanked that old standby out again and again for films like END OF THE ROAD when the theater owners were afraid they were being set up for a bust by the MPAA. Ahhhh those were the days...

-- HSB