I Hear a Train: Chaos and Control in Emperor of the North

illustration by Tony Stella

Think about trains.

One the one hand, trains represent control. They’re pushed on by a conductor or engineer, who chooses the speed—not too fast, not too slow. The entire history of trains in the United States, of course, is loaded with imperial baggage, as the newly laid tracks spread out across the west, the iron will of manifest destiny bringing “civilization” to the “untamed wild.” Then, there are the tracks: the train can only go where they lead. Westerns consistently contrast the train, with its fixed mobility, with the free ability of the lone western rider (or his gang) and their horses. Bandits, after holding up a train, can disappear into the hills, while the train is left on the tracks, locked in by its limitations. Since their first westward journeys, trains have been about bringing what was demanded (order) to what was unacceptable (disorder).

On the other hand, though, trains represent the loss of control. An incapacitated engineer can send a runaway train careening off the tracks. Those same bandits might blow up a bridge over a deep gorge, putting the train at risk of plummeting hundreds of feet below. The sheer power of a train, with its ear-quaking noise and skyward-facing nostrils, forever blowing out plumes of coal-black smoke, is almost otherworldly; it’s a god and monster, with the power to bring life and progress and commerce, but also to destroy those same things, when control yields to chaos.

It’s this dynamic—between chaos and control—that’s at the core of action films. In the deepest parts of the human lizard brain, the appeal of destruction is undeniable. The car chases, the high-rise explosions, the stunts—all of these represent our attraction to the thrill of things going terribly, horribly, fatally wrong.

And yet, there is control. Those chases, explosions, stunts—they’re all executions of pitch-perfect design and choreography. They are the ultimate displays of professionalism at work, as crew members behind the camera and performers in front of the camera come together to make disorder happen in as orderly a manner as possible.

There’s something high stakes, then, about an action scene set on a train. There’s the finale of Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible (1996), with its bullet-speed fury. Further back, there’s John Frankenheimer’s The Train (1964), with Burt Lancaster as a member of the French resistance trying to recover art stolen by the Nazis. Even further back, there’s the pivotal moment in Buster Keaton’s The General (1926) where the train just misses being nailed by a cannonball.

The stakes are higher than a clumsy foot pursuit through back alleys, or even a breakneck speed car chase in and out of busy urban streets. The reckless, panicked freneticism of William Friedkin’s great car chases, in The French Connection (1971) and To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) are nearly transcendent in their power to thrill. But there’s a fundamental limit to the consequences; the pursued car will either get away, or it won’t. No matter how many innocent bystanders Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) just misses, or how many dents Richard Chance (William Petersen) puts in commuters’ fenders, these road ragers won’t destroy the entire city.

An action scene aboard a train is different. The momentum of the massive machine keeps driving it forward, no matter what individual struggle is playing out on top of it, underneath it, or between its cars. Think of the shots directors lean on in these sequences: a character looks down, and the blurred gravel and metal track below seem to reach up and threaten to pull him under, where he’ll be crushed, crunched, and have an otherwise bad day in general. The noise, too. The pounding, rhythmic wheels, driven on without regard for life and limb. A character has to operate a car. The driver controls the speed, the wheel, the brakes. On a train, there is only surrender to something much more powerful. The action hero has an objective behind the wheel, but aboard a train, the environment is not simply indifferent to that goal, but actively hostile to its completion.

Then, there’s the lingering possibility that the train could crash. One of the highest peaks the action genre can reach is the sound and fury of a train derailing. Bodies, heroic and villainous alike, will be disregarded so completely that they will be rent, tossed, and smashed. The individual power of an action hero means nothing against the industrial savagery of the train.       

To me, the film that sits at the nexus of chaos and control represented by trains, especially as they are used to illustrate the same dynamic in action cinema, is Robert Aldrich’s Emperor of the North (1973).

The film opens with a crawl that seems to presage John Carpenter’s opening of Escape From New York (1981), in that it establishes the world that we, the viewers, are about to enter. Carpenter’s film is a useful point of comparison because Emperor, though set at a fixed point in the past (both in fact and in our popular historical memory), portrays a landscape that feels like the aftermath of an apocalypse. No police intervene. Systems of society seem broken irrevocably.

The first words on screen tell us that we are in “1933, the height of the Great Depression.” Then it tells us “Hoboes roamed the land,” that they were “Nomads who scorned the law and enforced their own.” In Emperor, hoboes are the anarchic force, the disruptors who challenge the structures of order. They’re a wild gang of abandoned, forgotten, haggard men who’ve been scattered across the country like seeds that will never take root, never be tended, and never grow. To see them is to confront what seems like the last of a generation. When the last one dies, they will be gone, and no one will remember them.

But then: “Dedicated to their destruction was the Railroad Man who stood between them and their only source of survival—the Trains.” Enter the exterminators, bearing with them the authoritarian impulse to stomp down with a heavy boot. They portend a future nightmare of a culture built on violence for violence’s sake, a counterfactual history of 1930s America that says, actually, it can happen here.  

Even before the film has come up from black, with only the distant sound of a train’s wheels on the soundtrack, it has given us the players, each of whom represent the forces of chaos and control, and also the ground upon which that conflict will play itself out.

Emperor’s plot is fairly threadbare: Legendary hobo A No. 1 (Lee Marvin), egged on by the fellow denizens of a hobo camp, tries to board and ride the Number 19 train, operated by notorious hobo skull-crusher Shack (Ernest Borgnine), and stay on until it pulls into Portland, Oregon. He’s joined on his quest by a young braggart, Cigaret (Keith Carradine), with few principles of his own. Much of the film’s action is set aboard the Number 19, as A No. 1 and Cigaret attempt to outwit Shack on the ride to Portland. They board. They’re thrown off. They board again. They fall. They board yet again. The central conflict of the film presents a clash of ideology: will Shack’s commitment to order at any cost be able to resist A No. 1’s quest to defy it by any means necessary?  

We seem to be reckoning with something approaching the mythic, here. Marvin’s hobo is a folk hero to the other luckless bums; we never get his real name, just the moniker that confers upon him equal parts sincere and ironic reverence. He’s A No. 1, sure, the top of the hobo heap, king of the hill. But that hill is no majestic picaresque. It’s a pile of rusted out detritus, discarded scrap metal, halves of old cars, the endless debris that carpets the forested Pacific Northwest scenery just beyond the train tracks. He’s a landfill’s first citizen, the manifestation of all the chaotic energy of an out-of-control freight train hurtling toward a deafening, squealing smashup.

A No. 1’s motivations are pure. They’re far from the economic social dramas of films by Warner Brothers made in the actual 1930s. For example, Paul Muni’s James Allen, from 1932’s I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang is a victim of circumstance, the downtrodden common man bereft of noble work and his daily bread. From his plight, we are meant to think about the injustice of a system that would condemn him for its failures, not his own. Instead, A No. 1 wants to ride Shack’s train because he’s trying to rake his dirty, cracked fingernails across the eyes of authority.

And the authority in the film is deeply troubling. Shack is introduced clubbing a nameless hobo with a massive hammer, then—present in the wide, gleeful eyes of Borgnine—reveling in the sadistic thrill of it all. He’s a latter-day Blackshirt, his uniform crisp and dark, ruling over his dominion with brutal violence, served with a toothy grin. He is the despot committed only to his despotism, who must crush challenges to his authority for the self-reinforcing reason that showing any weakness will undermine his authority. His train runs on time, and everybody aboard buys a ticket, or they get a brain bashing.  

A No. 1 is similarly guided by such circularity; he has to bring chaos to bear against control because he is Hobo Prime. He doesn’t particularly want to get to Portland. He’s not looking for work up there, or food. He’s got to get to Portland because he has to beat Shack. The first time A No. 1 stows away on Shack’s train, he’s trapped in a boxcar filled with hay, along with Cigaret. A No. 1 tells Cigaret that the “country’s gone to hell.” A few minutes later, he’s bringing hell to the country by burning the hay, setting the entire car on fire so that he might dive out the window when the train pulls into the yard, covering his escape from Shack’s hammer. The hapless Cigaret, who is committed neither to control or chaos, can only marvel, and then, after he’s caught by the yard men, take credit for A No. 1’s feat.

Cigaret’s presence here is essential because it reflects the conflict between chaos and control behind the camera, as well. As the free agent in the film, a burgeoning New Hollywood star, sharing the bill with two actors more representative of classic Hollywood, Carradine’s casting highlights a generation gap, their styles of acting clashing against one another both on screen and on set. His character, Cigaret, introduces similar unpredictability. Though the middle part of the film seems to align him with A No. 1, as a trusty sidekick, there comes a moment where Cigaret has to choose whether or not to save A No. 1 from a nasty bit of Hobo Repellent administered by Shack. The two men are riding the underside of the train, and Shack is dangling a jagged piece of metal tied to a rope underneath. Cigaret could grab the rope, as the metal bounces up from the gravel below the train and slaps A No. 1 on the shoulders and back, to blunt the force of Shack’s assault. But, he doesn’t. Although A No. 1 had saved him from similar torment on an earlier ride, Cigaret doesn’t return the favor. He has no principles; loyalty to the man the film posits as his mentor doesn’t enter into Cigaret’s mind. He seeks the glory of riding Shack’s train into Portland for himself, but he wants A No. 1 to do all the work, take the body blows, and then disappear.

One can also sense Hollywood’s own pivot point while watching the film, as chaos and control crash into one another on the macro level. The studio system, as it had existed since the silent era was undergoing radical transformation: Young directors were taking cues from European cinema, as well as the societal and political upheaval caused by Vietnam, the sexual revolution, and all of those other counterculture movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s. New Hollywood was marked by groundbreakers like Easy Rider (1969) and Nashville (1975).

But New Hollywood wasn’t just fueled by its young guns. Some of those classic Hollywood old dogs were still hunting. Emperor’s director Robert Aldrich was one of those. He got his start in television in 1952, and made many films under the yoke of the old Production Code, like Vera Cruz (1954) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955), in which he challenged genre and undermined censorship restrictions.

In watching Emperor of the North, you can feel Aldrich behind the camera, wrestling with the forces of chaos and control. Thanks to the new ratings system administered in 1968, he has freedom from the Production Code to present a world that is mean, nasty, and treats authority as fundamentally corrupt.

These forces join together for a climactic fight on the last car of Shack’s train in the film’s concluding minutes. Cigaret is sidelined, a helpless bystander, watching A No. 1 take on Stack for supremacy. The fight is brutal; messy; and, like the rest of the film, feels mythic and apocalyptic simultaneously. Shack has his hammer, until he loses it and picks up a chain. A No. 1 fights him off with a piece of lumber, until he pries an axe from the wall of another train car. They’re like Godzilla and Mothra, one committed to order, the other to disruption.

A No. 1 gets the upper hand, and wounds Shack critically. And yet, Aldrich’s film can’t quite go all in; A No. 1 knocks Stack off the train, but doesn’t kill him. It’s as if he knows that someday, he’ll want to beat Shack again. He won’t be satisfied without his sparring partner. Shack is defeated, humiliated, and wounded. But he’ll live to rule another train, bash another hobo, clench his fist another time.

Perhaps that is the classic Hollywood impulse in Aldrich, or the wisdom of his age. The vestiges of filmmaking under the Production Code linger, and he can’t bring himself to present a world where authority is completely dethroned. Instead, symbiosis reigns. If A No. 1 doesn’t have Shack to kick around anymore, his own purpose for living may decay. What’s the point of boarding a train if no one’s going to try to stop you? Maybe that’s what’s going through A No. 1’s mind in the moment before he decides to spare Shack’s life, and instead pushes him off. One force requires its opposite’s continued existence in order to justify its own. A rock needs a hard place.

Cigaret suffers the same fate—A No. 1 kicks him off the train, too, and he falls into a river. He’ll survive, like Shack, but A No. 1 hopes he’ll learn something. He shouts a lecture about principles as the train pulls away from the water, his voice booming out across the landscape. Cigaret treads water, denied the reflected glow of A No. 1’s glory. The cynical opportunism of his youth has left him with nothing.

And thus, the film’s final image is the force of chaos in control. The train, itself a representation of that duality, carries A No. 1 off into the sunset. He has no job. He has no food. The Depression will go on. But in this moment, order has had no choice but to reckon with the power of its opposite.

A No. 1’s victory cannot fully reconcile these opposing forces. The debate is not settled for good, as many action films would have it (until a sequel, anyway). Action cinema is built on an assured foundation of almost certain collapse. Such is the thrill of an expertly crafted action film like Emperor of the North—a forever wobbling balance between everything going just right, and everything going terribly wrong.

All aboard.