Two of the manliest men in cinema were Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine. Both of them looked like you could clobber them with a two-by-four to no effect. But what if they each had a two-by-four, or better yet, a fireman’s axe and chains, and battled it out? That’s the premise of this movie, where Marvin plays a tough hobo and Borgnine is a brutal conductor infamous for kicking freeloaders off his train. Sure, the director said that they symbolized the Establishment and Anti-Establishment, but I think they symbolized Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine locked in a locomotive thunderdome, battling it out on a flatbed rail car, and that’s deep enough for me.
Who didn’t want to become a hobo when they were a kid? Nowadays they probably have NinHobo for the Wii, and you have to swing the controllers around to cut open a can of beans, hop trains, and stab people with your hobo knife. But back in the 70’s when this film was made, our “controllers” were called “sticks,” and we made everything out of them: Rifles. Hobo knives. Lightsabers. It was the Swiss Army Knife of toys, and yep, you could even pretend it was a Swiss Army knife. To be a hobo, all you needed was a stick and a bandanna or a handkerchief, or a washcloth snatched from the sink, tied up around your “bindle” of necessities for life on the road, like a bologna sandwich and a few Hot Wheels cars, for bartering. You could rub some dirt on your face for stubble, or burn a piece of cork if you were feeling audacious.
That’s about all that’s needed for this movie, too. Except for the trains of course. There’s a lot of train porn in this movie. I call it that because train fanatics, or “railfans” seem to be the only people who remember this film, down to the specifics of what kind of train was used, and so on. In Britain they are called “trainspotters” and their activities were revealed in the documentary Trainspotting.
The movie starts out by introducing us to Ernest Borgnine, known as “Shack” in the movie. His train is leaving the station and he finds a hobo on it, so he beats him with a club until he falls between two cars, gets jumbled up like a sack of sausages in the laundry, and cut in half by the train. In full detail. This is to let you know that the movie is all about two men beating the shit out of each other, and to go sneak in to The Aristocats one theater over, before you’re sick to your stomach, you pansy.
Ernest Borgnine cuts a man in half.
Shack is one mean sonofabitch, but he gets outsmarted by two other ‘Bos on the train. One is Lee Marvin, known only as “A #1” because he’s Lee Marvin, goddammit, and King of the Hobos. The other one is Keith Carradine, who plays a brash kid so annoying that you wish the two tough guys would stop fighting for a moment and nail his tongue to a tree with a railroad spike. According to the director, he’s supposed to represent The Youth of Today. He and #1 tussle over a train car they both hop into, and Shack locks them in. It’s a cow car, so when they herd the steers in, they’ll be trampled to death. A#1 outsmarts them by … setting the car on fire, and forcing them to stop the train.
They both brag about riding Shack’s train- A#1 to his fellow hobos, and the Kid, called “Cigaret,” to the rail men who caught him- raising Shack’s fury. He practically strangles the kid. When the hobos find out about the Kid’s boast, it shakes A#1’s reputation… so he has to win it back. He says he’ll ride Shack’s train all the way to Portland, and Cigaret claims he’ll do it too. The rail men hear about it, bets are made, and the battle is on. The film’s title comes from the hobo jargon of calling the greatest of hobos “the Emperor of the North Pole,” or king of nothing, aka King Shit.
Probably the best “train porn” in the movie is when Shack hot-rods it out of the station so no one can hop on and freeload. Now trains have schedules for good reasons, because sometimes they share track. And by jumping ahead of schedule he screws things up. Another train is take a side track and they just barely miss its caboose as the brakes screech. It’s actually pretty exciting, but there are no big train crashes in the movie.
America runs on Dunkin’ Deacons
There’s a few funny scenes where they steal clothes from a bunch of evangelicals praying in the river; when he gets unexpectedly dunked, A#1 shouts “Jesus Christ!” and the preacher thinks he’s praying. Later they steal a turkey, and a cop chases them into a hobo camp, only to get pranks played on him. Overall the movie is bit on the long side, and the most memorable parts involve Hobo vs. Conductor and the cruel ways they try to defeat each other. Shack’s favorite trick for hobos riding underneath a rail car is to tie a lead weight to a rope, and feed it under the train, so it bludgeons them as it flails around. This makes A#1 find a way to lock the brakes, which sends the fireman into the coal oven, and bashes another worker’s head in.
This goads him into the final battle, and he stalks along the top of the train with a mini sledgehammer to do them in. Eventually they end up on a flat car, duking it out with slabs of lumber, chains, fireman’s axes, and their formidable brawn. It’s brutal and ugly, despite the bright red paint blood they used in the 70’s. It’s definitely worth slogging through the rather slow movie to see two Hollywood tough guys fight it out.
Ernest Borgnine just has an evil look to him when he wants to- whether he’s trying to beat up Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity, or as a murderous member of The Wild Bunch, or even when he played alongside Marvin in The Dirty Dozen. Marvin needs no bad-ass introduction. He got shot in the ass in WW2 and played tough guys ever since he was a motorcycle thug in The Wild One opposite Brando. He may have been awarded the Purple Heart, but the most bad-ass thing I ever heard about Lee Marvin was from a rehearsal with John Vernon (aka Dean Wormer from Animal House) when he hit Vernon so hard that the man began to cry.
He and Borgnine were in a few other movies together, like the classic Bad Day at Black Rock, and a Dirty Dozen sequel. He didn’t make it to the third sequel, Dirty Baker’s Dozen, where they are all in a nursing home and plot to escape and go to Dunkin’ Donuts. Instead, it is recalled that his character choked fatally on a cruller from the cafeteria, and it will not go unavenged.
The Final Battle
The film’s theme song, “A Man and a Train,” is a marvel of 70’s country-folk insipidity, and I urge you to listen to it for a time capsule of the early 70’s, if you can stand it. Marty Robbins, I salute you for writing and singing this amazing song. Whenever I run out of steam, I will try to keep running on a dream.
A man and a train, a train and a man
They both tried to run as far
And as fast as they can
But a man’s not a train and a train’s not a man
A man can do things that a train never can
Goin’ up a mountain even half way to the top
The minute that a train runs out of steam it’s gotta stop
But it’s a different story when a man runs out of steam
He still can go a long, long way
On nothin’ but a dream
Goin’ cross the country when a train runs out of track
It has to stop and turn around and then start headin’ back
But many miles from nowhere out where all the tracks are gone
A man who’s got himself a dream
Can still keep goin’ on
So don’t try to stop me
Don’t try to stop me cause nobody can
I’ve got a dream, a beautiful dream and that makes me a man
No don’t try to stop me
Don’t try to stop me cause nobody can
I’ve got a dream, a beautiful dream and that makes me
Makes me a man