It's 1933 and America is suffering in the grip of the Great Depression. The lowest members of society are the hoboes, who illegally hitch rides on the trains to take them across the country, looking for work, and in Oregon, the nemesis of these hoboes is the train guard known as the Shack (Ernest Borgnine), who thinks nothing of viciously despatching them with hammers and chains whenever they try to ride his carriages. Jumping onto his train one day is Cigaret (Keith Carradine), a kid too young to know better, who meets up with A No.1 (Lee Marvin), a hobo who is wise to the ways of the world. When the Shack discovers them, he locks them in the carriage to be trampled by the cattle who are soon to be taken aboard, but A No.1 has a plan...
You know that old movie cliché that occurs whenever a couple of characters, or maybe more, are travelling across America without transport, then they will eventually end up climbing aboard a slow moving, empty railway carriage and that will take them part of their journey? Well, Emperor of the North Pole, scripted by Christopher Knopf, is a whole movie built around a scene such as that. The title means the same as "King of the Castle", that is, top of your game, and able to look down on everyone else, and when the film starts the Shack is in that position - but for how much longer?
When the kid starts boasting of how he rode on the Shack's line, the railway workers see the chance for a lucrative bet. All the kid has to do is stay on the next day's train until it reaches its destination. Word reaches A No.1 that Cigaret has stolen his thunder, so he decides to take the bet too, to prove that he is, essentially, top of the rubbish heap. The lowly railway workers look down on the jobless, homeless hoboes, but the Shack actively loathes them, so the stage is set for a battle of wits that will lead to violence. All this class conflict is played down to the extent that the story is focussed in on Cigaret and A No.1 getting on and falling off the train amid picturesque scenery for most of the time.
Although it takes too long for the premise to be set up, when it gets going it's undeniably absorbing. Borgnine offers a ferocious performance, a formidable villain, feared by his co-workers, who has a number of tricks up his sleeve when it comes to ridding his train of hoboes. At the opening, we see him smash one stowaway over the head with a hammer, and leave the man to fall to his death under the wheels of the carriages, which cut him in two. This, presumably, wasn't part of his job description, but he takes sadistic pleasure in doing it all the same, and we know that a bloody fight will not be long arriving.
In contrast, Marvin is laid back, and quietly confident, a sly old fox who has been around long enough to know the trials of life in the open air. The script has been well researched, so we learn the ploys that the hoboes used to climb aboard, including greasing the rails to slow the trains down. Marvin capitalises on humour to make his character more likeable, and it's pleasing to see his roguish ways get the better of the authority figures. But despite the beginning making it clear men like him were desperate for employment and money, the act of cheating the railwaymen has become A No.1's whole life, and winning the title Emperor of the North Pole is, finally, meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Pity the cocky Cigaret, however, who doesn't even make a good hobo. Music by Frank DeVol.