Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Ernest Borgnine was in town recently, receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Rhode Island International Film Festival, and I wanted nothing more than to share a beer and an easy conversation with the guy. It’s a hoary cliché to bemoan the fact that they just don’t make ‘em like they use to, but it’s equally hard to argue that there’s a whole lotta equivalents to Ernie Borgnine in contempo cinema. Borginine, particularly in action films, war movies, and western’s brought a sort of proletariat authenticity, whether playing grizzled, ornery, malevolent, or wizened.
Borgnine’s greatest screen moments may have been as William Holden’s right hand man in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (’69), but he enjoyed some fruitful collaborations with the often underrated Robert Aldrich (one of the masters, alongside Howard Hawks and Sam Fuller of men-in-conflict sub genre), getting the job done in Flight of the Phoenix (’65), The Dirty Dozen (’67) and The Legend of Lylah Care (’68). Aldrich is also responsible for one of good ‘ol Ernie’s toughest, all-out, son-of-a-bitch roles, that of train conductor Shack in 1973’s Emperor of the North.
A box office failure upon its release, it was a hard to categorize effort, a train tale, a depression fable, and a very weird coming-of-age story, set in Oregon in 1933, and co-starring the indubitable Lee Marvin as a kingpin hobo called A-No. 1 and newcomer Keith Carradine as footloose punk puppy dog known as Cigaret. (The movie also underwent a title change from The Emperor of The North Pole to its longstanding one-word-less appellation, the original title being an ironic moniker applied to the boss hobo, aka The King of Nowheresville.) Aldrich steadfastly claimed it to be a representational bit of cinefiction, a sideways commentary of the generational fission taking place with America at the time, but it played out as a period piece peppered with brutality despite a few picaresque zig-zags (a loose turkey and a sad sack cop played by Simon Oakland in hobo camp, a comical riverside baptism, some cat and mouse shtick between Carradine and Marvin).
Aldrich, always a filmmaker who knew exactly how to stage, frame and cut an action sequence, delivers throughout, and the action and its inherent violence are filmed with an unfussy muscularity. The hobo patois (and Marvin's rat-a-tat delivery) is ear pleasing and the train set pieces are vivid. The characterizations, especially Carradine’s irritating braggart, don’t quite jell, but Marvin fully commits to his raging roosterisms and my man Ernie just clenches those powerful choppers of his and squints his way right past evildom. I saw this movie in the theatres during my late adolescence and was held in sway by it then, and thought that the final one-on-one match-up between the two manliest of men, Lee Marvin and Ernie Borgnine, was pure action nirvana--hard, smart, thrilling, and too cool to be true. I’m still there, some 30 wizened and ornery years later.