(thanks, Carl’s Trains & Stuff!)
If you haven’t checked out that video above, don’t let the title fool you one bit – this isn’t a family friendly movie about a bouncy, happy CGI penguin and there’s definitely no red-suited Jolly Saint Nick here to spread happy holiday tidings (but there is a fat guy who throws hammers). Nope, this 1973 film from the late, great Robert Aldrich is simultaneously big, mean, brutal and hilarious, often within a few seconds in some scenes.
Based loosely on a Jack London book and a book partially about Jack London, the film features Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine as bitter rivals battling for turf rights in the most absurd of places – a moving freight train. OK, there’s much more to this classic than that, but it pretty much boils town to a prolonged (and excellently shot) fight between two men way past middle age beating the crap out of each other with 2 x 4’s, a chain, thrown hammers and an axe. I guess a cynic would call it Thunderdome on rolling stock, but not as cheesy and much better acted, at that…
Marvin plays a Depression era hobo nicknamed “A Number 1” (or A-No. 1 for short) who, along with Cigaret (Keith Carradine) a younger, dumber hobo who looks up to him, hops the freight train Borgnine’s rather cranky character, Shack is determined to keep free of freeloaders. After A-No. 1 escapes and Cigaret is caught and nearly sent to the great (or not so great) hobo camp in the sky. Thinking he’s free of the loathsome loafers, Shack soon enough finds out that there’s a rolling bet taking place along the line that someone will try to hop his train all the way to Portland, Oregon. That someone happens to be A-No. 1 and Shack isn’t having any of it. He sets out to literally put the hammer down on the hobo king, but it won’t be as easy as he thinks.
The film is always amazing because of the amount of stunt work and practical effects (I don’t think there’s a single fake-looking process shot or matte painting) and when Shack throws a hammer at a hapless bum early on, it’s like a real life Three Stooges film (NO, not the awful one from last year) where you’ll almost feel the impact yourself. The three leads are solid and believable throughout, with Marvin and Borgnine getting some amazing close-ups and excellent dialog that lets them both act up a few storms of different intensity. The humor in the film is broad and well-played as well as a necessity, breaking up the more intense moments and allowing viewers to laugh both with and at the characters and some of their misfortunes.
There are a bunch of famous character actors used quite well here in brief scenes, so if you’re good at placing faces, among others you’ll see Elisha Cook, Jr., Simon Oakland, Vic Tayback, Sid Haig and a young Lance Henriksen (who has no screen credit) playing their parts to perfection. As this is a sausage party on steroids before steroids were “in”, women aren’t exactly well represented at all here. That said, Carradine’s Cigaret character isn’t the brightest bulb on the planet, and the film wisely doesn’t make him the moral center of the story. It’s all about Marvin and Borgnine and their feisty feud that results in a few casualties around them as the film progresses. The Shack’s obsessive determination to keep anyone without a ticket off his train makes him careless towards even the train’s crew, who go above and beyond the call to keep the train going under some insane circumstances.
Meanwhile, Marvin’s stubbornness and Cigaret’s refusal to take the simplest of advice or hints nearly gets him killed. A-No. 1 wants nothing to do with this kid who thinks he some sort of homeless Jedi sage chock full of hobo survival skills, when in fact, he’s an aging man who’s living on the edge of life not because he’s a heroic figure at all. It’s just a case of dealing with the hand life has dealt him where survival is a day to day thing, yet life is cheap for anyone who forgets this. When Shack and A-No. 1 finally do get their bloody battle royale on, you’ll be rooting for Marvin more than likely to prevail, but you’ll also be rooting for some common sense to be bonked into someone’s head because in the grand scheme of things, they’re no more than two grumpy old men trying to get the better of each other as if they were over half their ages younger and their small, moving slice of the world was their personal gladiator pit.
(Note: this is also called Emperor of the North in a few spots, but a search for either should put you in touch with the same film…)