Emperor of the North (1973) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • In 1933, during the Depression, Shack the brutal conductor of the number 19 train has a personal vendetta against the best train hopping hobo tramp in the Northwest, A No. 1.

  • It is during the great depression in the US, and the land is full of people who are now homeless. Those people, commonly called "hobos", are truly hated by Shack (Borgnine), a sadistical railway conductor who swore that no hobo will ride his train for free. Well, no-one but "A" Number One (Lee Marvin), who is ready to put his life at stake to become a local legend - as the first person who survived the trip on Shack's notorious train.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • Driven to desperation by the economic depression of 1930s America, a subculture of hobos hopped freight trains to get from place to place in search of jobs, handouts, or even to take it easy sometimes. Emperor of the North Pole depicts a microcosm of this subculture set in Oregon, and actually used the Oregon, Pacific & Eastern railroad which was taken up in 1994 like so much other trackage around the country. Thus, this motion picture serves as not only a look into an important aspect of American history, but into a specific piece of it in the Pacific Northwest.

    The film opens with the mechanical star, 2-8-2 steam locomotive #19, stopping to take on water while a hobo who calls himself "A-#1" looks on in anticipation of hopping this local train. Meanwhile, the conductor, "Shack", makes his presence known to the other hobos hiding in the weeds with a menacing countenance. As they pull back onto the mainline, Shack spies an ambitious hobo hopping between cars and quickly makes him pay his fare by knocking him down between the rails to his death. This sets the tone for the movie. The single-minded, almost hateful Shack bound and determined to prevent anyone from riding his train versus the veteran hobo A-#1 bound and determined to ride the 19 train. Each has his reputation at stake.

    A-#1 manages to hop aboard and hide in a cattle car undetected, but a greenhorn punk who calls himself "Cigaret" gives him away as he, too, climbs into the same car. Shack sees the kid closing the hatch and locks them in, leading to an unexpected turn of events.

    A-#1 sets fire to the hay in the car in order to burn his way through the wooden slats. He succeeds and hurls himself off the car to make his getaway as the train pulls into the yard with smoke billowing up. The kid, Cigaret, follows him with glee, but his celebration is short-lived as the yard workers haul him into the shop for a good grilling.

    The kid spins a yarn as if he were the veteran hobo whose plans were bolloxed up by A-#1, but the yard workers believe him and set up a sure-thing bet designed to net some easy money from Shack's brakeman, Cracker. Right at payoff time, Shack stops their little game and learns that somebody is fixin to ride his train.

    Spurred into defending his reputation in this micro-society, A-#1 makes it known in the hobo community that he intends to ride the 19 to Portland, a feat which is unbelievable to all. They all declare, "Nobody rides Shack's train!"

    On heightened alert now, Shack blasts his train out of the yard at high speed (highballing) to prevent anyone from hopping on and runs the train into the first trap set for him by A-#1: a switch thrown reverse into a short spur track. Since the railroad operated on train orders which depended on trains leaving and arriving at agreed-upon times, this put the 19 into jeopardy of not making it to the siding (the "Junction") before the Fast Mail train came blasting the opposite direction.

    Once they backed the train onto the mainline and got underway, A-#1 uncouples the cars from the tender, introducing yet another delay. Shack's frustration and genuine concern for the destruction and loss of life that would occur should the 19 not make it to the siding in time are evident as he pleads with the "bo" to stop interfering. Underneath it all we know that Shack is also vengeful, and he shall have his day shortly.

    As the Fast Mail train bears down on the switch, the 19 just barely makes it into the siding and clears the mainline with inches to spare, a fact not lost on the brakeman who would have become quite flattened otherwise. A-#1 is suitably impressed that the Fast Mail train was not a "ghost story" as he had thought.

    Unable to shake the pesky Cigaret, A-#1 reluctantly takes him under his wing to show him how to be a "meat eater" and make his way in life despite its hardships and the corruption of authority figures. We see a number of tricks of the hobo trade and hear a lot of the slang used by hobos, another slice of history capsulized. A few scenes bring a chuckle or two.

    *** SPOILER ALERT ***

    Ultimately, Shack meets A-#1 in a bloody, gruesome fight with chains, 2x4 boards, and even an axe. We can see the determination and agony of each of them as they intentionally draw out the brawl. While Cigaret looks on, Shack gets his comeuppance as A-#1 shoves him off the train. Yet, we hear Shack shouting "You aint seen the last of me!"

    The cocky punk Cigaret boasts about "their" accomplishments, which drives A-#1 to decide that enough is enough, so the kid gets the heave-ho into the river, too. A-#1 dishes out a lengthy sermon to him as the train rounds the bend and into history.

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