I recently heard that Emperor of the North will finally be getting a Blu-ray release soon. I don’t have a Blu-ray player but I’m certainly glad to see the film is getting the overdue exposure it so richly deserves. It has always been a personal favorite of the films Lee Marvin made and in researching about it, I discovered some fascinating tidbits I was able to put into Lee Marvin Point Blank. I was fortunate enough to interview both cinematographer Joe Biroc (at the end of his life) as well Rolling Stone Magazine’s Grover Lewis, who was onset everyday of the shoot and enlightened me with tales that didn’t go into his detailed article.
The screenwriter, Christopher Knopf, got his idea for the film when he read the books of Leon R. Livingston, the self-proclaimed ‘A-No-1,’ as well as from Jack London’s The Road. Figuring the story would be more interesting if updated to the 1930s Depression rather than the Depression of the 1890s, Knopf removed the political polemic of London’s version to focus instead on the symbolism of hoboes in the time of the 1930s…..
Jack London (left) and the self-proclaimed ‘A-No-1,’ Leon Livingston years after their tramping days. The caption says it all.
Why did London quit the road, as stated in the caption? Well, that story requires a little background. After his teen years as an oyster pirate, London took to the road to be a part of what was called Coxie’s Industrial Army of 1894. Coxie, a U.S. Senator determined to undermine the nightmarish economic Depression of the time, solicited Congress to grant 500 million dollars for the construction of roads, waterways and other infrastructure improvements to be labored over by the overflowing army of unemployed but able-bodied family men. When Congress declined, Coxie organized a vast army of men to much on Washington D.C. as living petitioners of his cause, very much like The Bonus Marchers following WWI.
Jack London had learned the ropes of the road a few months earlier from a group of road kids and had earned the moniker ‘Sky Sail Jack,’ due to his maritme adventures. He weaved in and out of Coxie’s Army as a ‘Profesh,’ the hobo/tramp term for the best of the best a hobo can be. The West Coast contigent of Coxie’s Army was dubbed Kelly’s Army under the auspices of a dubious leader named ‘General’ Kelly, which was where London joined the fray. London was arrested several times along the way, road the rails, hoofed it and encountered all manner of experiences along the way that he detailed later in his novel, The Road. The book predates Livingston’s tale and included the use of the coupling a ‘shack’ would use to torture hoboes….
Leon Livingston’s (A-No-1) description of jumping off the train to avoid the dangling and deadly coupling clanking under the track as seen in the film, Emperor of the North. His description of Jack London is more like the Keith Carradine character than what London was actually like.
London’s disgust with the treatment of hoboes, the disenfranchised, the infirmed, the weak, at the hands of authorities was so intense, he left the road for good to become a writer who railed against such treatment, in-between his intensely popular adventure stories.
The makers of Emperor of the North would have none of that, choosing instead a symbolic tale of similar concept but without the historical context of the source. In fact, nowhere in the credits is London’s name even mentioned as an original source. There is a brief mention in the dialog of a character named Sky Sail Jack, but that’s about the extent of it.
Knopf’s tale does incorporate colorful hobo dialog and placing it in the 1930s certainly makes sense as it allowed for the following ad line to be used in posters and press releases…
This back page image of Lee Marvin from the Japanese program of Emperor of the North was used in American ads that described both the time period and storyline of the film.
“This movie is about one hell of a man who lived when Dillinger was slamming banks, and Roosevelt was awakening the nation.
“He’s a hard-time fast-tracker who’s been where it’s mean. A grizzly with a sense-of humor, an adventurer with holes in his pockets. A wandering rebel, living off the land by his wits and his fists. He goes it alone, he does what he wantss — for the beautiful pure sweet hell of it. Who’s going to stop him — you?
“Now he’s taking on his biggest run. A challenge no one ever survived. That’s why he has to do it!
EMPEROR OF THE NORTH It’s not a place…it’s a prize!”
The filmmakers certainly made use of many of London’s specific details as shown below and utillized in the film by Marvin’s character….
In historian Russ Kingman’s book, A Pictorial Life of Jack London, he pictures and describes the ‘ticket’ London used in his bumming days, identical to the one Lee Marvin used in Emperor of the North.
It’s a wonderful film in spite of its lack of acknowledgement of London’s influence. However, the use of Livingston’s characterization of London (“Cigarette”), the annoying and clinging novice, is not only inaccurate but rather irksome. It suffices to think of Marvin as London, the REAL ‘A-No-1,’ Livingston’s made up term for himself and not ‘The profesh’ London was known as at the time. Either way. it still has one of the greatest fight scenes in movie history…..
The famous fight scene at the climax of Emperor of the North that was aptly described by cinematographer Joe Biroc in Lee Marvin: Point Blank.
I wanted to include in this entry a ‘making of’ short of Emperor of the North that’s not included in the recent Blu-ray release. I have it on a homemade DVD but unfortunately, I’m not technologically profecient enough to pull off the download. With that in mind, if any ‘techies’ out there reading this can clue me in…Please do!
– Dwayne Epstein