Neither of the principal hobos, Lee Marvin's "A-No. One" and Carradine's "Cigarette," seems motivated by necessity. Marvin seems to ride the rails to show that he can, especially when train bosses claim that he can't. Carradine seems intent on making a name for himself in hobo-dom, though he claims that he already has. Their ambitions put both men on a collision course with Ernest Borgnine's Shack, the boss of the No. 19 train, who claims that no man has ever rode his train for free. He, too, has something to prove after an incident in which Marvin and Carradine, trapped in one of Shack's cars and fearing a beating, burn their way out, creating an impression that they've already beaten Shack. That'd be a major event among the train men, many of whom hate Shack as a harsh taskmaster. He and A-No. One are celebrities in their own shared subculture of trains and hobos, and A-No. One's public announcement that he'll ride the No. 19 to the end of the line, both to spite Shack and to prove his superiority to the suddenly lionized Cigarette, sparks a betting frenzy up and down the line. So in a way they are like gunslingers, but they're also like the celebrity athletes who had begun to emerge by this point in history. Riding the rails, or driving men off them, is more a matter of mythic prowess than survival.
Emperor has very little social consciousness for a Depression film. It may not be fair to compare it with Wild Boys of the Road, which has a different agenda, but the stakes for Cigarette, the youngster of the story, never seem as high as they are for the teenagers forced onto the rails in William Wellman's film. The train bosses in the earlier movie are mostly no more merciful than Shack is in Emperor, but in Wild Boys they're pretty much faceless cogs in an unjust system, while Shack (why am I tempted to spell that with a q?) is the indisputable villain of the Aldrich film. There's no sense that Shack is just doing his job, albeit overzealously and with too much relish, and there's never a moment that reveals any special motive for his meanness. The trailer simply calls him "evil," though "sadistic" may be the better term. For Borgnine, this kind of part is a throwback to the brute villain roles that first made his name in the 1950s, and he plays the part with the necessary gusto. But the limitations of Shack's character, no fault of Borgnine's, show the limits of the film's ambitions.
That doesn't mean you can't enjoy Emperor for the oldschool he-man action film it is. The climactic fight between Borgnine and Marvin may not live up to the hype that dubbed it "the most sensational fight ever filmed" (and this was the year of Enter the Dragon) but it's an impressive piece of direction and acting. It looks like it was all done by the two actors on a moving train, with no process shots that I could recognize. Axes, chains, hammers and two-by-fours all come into play and the middle-aged stars wield them with vigor. If anything, it goes on for too long. Each actor gets the upper hand at one point, only to spare his foe so the fight can continue for fighting's sake. These should have been more ruthless men, but the pulp nature of the story requires the fight to last longer.
Keith Carradine takes a hammer to the head (above). He could have done worse (below).
The film itself might have been shorter if shorn of some pointless digressions into ham-handed comedy. One bit I could do without is when cop Simon Oakland chases Carradine into a hobo jungle and gets forced to call a turkey a dog and bark like a dog in friendship. Slightly less obnoxiousness is a scene that could have gone into O Brother Where Art Thou? in which Marvin submits to baptism and gets to ogle a bra-less convert while Carradine steals clothes from the other believers. But the most pointless part of the picture is the prologue, which is basically a music video for the theme song, "A Man and a Train," in which Marty Robbins reveals the gnostic truth that "a man is not a train and a train is not a man." Hal David did the dubious lyrics, but the music, like that of the whole film, is by the dreadful Frank DeVol, whose interchangeable stylings marred many a Seventies film. DeVol is incapable of establishing mood and his music makes Emperor more of a chore to sit through than it should be. But fans of Marvin and Borgnine should definitely make the effort.
Here's the trailer, uploaded by unseentrailers, whose vocation belies his name: