More dynamic than Water for Elephants, more picturesque than Dr. Zhivago, and more accurate than My Left Foot, Emperor of the North gets my vote for the best movie of the 20th century.
Shack in railroad terms has evolved various meanings. The RR term is for switchmen, the guys who traveled trains to throw switches at the track junctions, or more broadly applied to any RR yardmen who work out of a ‘shack’ that you see at either end of every yard. This is where the workers get out of the weather, smoke cigarettes, and play cards and checkers. Sitting in a shack too long without getting out for fresh air is called shack fever.
I’ve been invited by itchy feet shackmen into their friendly shacks dozens of times on cross country runs. Typically, they’re cramped shanties from coast to coast constructed of clapboard or concrete a little larger than a phone booth with a pot belly stove and wallpaper of manifests, Playboy centerfolds, and hangman. You shoot the breeze with the men, sometimes a woman, and they help you get on the next freight.
In the movie Emperor of the North Shack is the character of Ernest Borgnine who was born for the roll. He rides the locomotive or caboose as the conductor, who in the old days doubled as the RR bull, or security. He is challenged by A#1, aka Lee Marvin, who has an historical character and I’ve read a dozen of his autobiographies, such as The Snare of the Road.
Emperor of the North takes place in the Great Depression of the U.S., and the country is full of people who are unemployed and homeless. Shack apparently hates the hordes that try to ride his trains, and swears that no hobo will ride his train for free. Along comes A#1, cool and tall, and smoking cigarettes like a smokestack, and puts his life at stake to ride Shack’s freight.
A-#1 is locked into a cattle car and sets fire to the hay in order to burn his way through the wooden slats. He succeeds and hurls himself off the car to make his getaway, as the train pulls into the yard with smoke curling up the lip of an infuriated Shack. Shack meets A-#1 in a bloody fight with chains, 2×4 boards, and an axe. A#1 uncouples the cars from the tender, the other bo’s run interference for him, he throws switches, and employs all the other tricks of the trade still used today to get through on the fast mail train to its final destination in Portland. Portland, I know, is a rustic yard with shade pines on both sides, where you can cross under and catch a city bus for a quarter downtown to the Hobo District.
Driven to desperation by the economic depression of 1930s, the hundreds of hobos who cheer A#1 on, formed an American subculture hopping freights to get from place to place in search of jobs, handouts, or even to take it easy sometimes, as is still done today. Emperor of the North depicts a microcosm of this subculture set in Oregon, and actually used the Oregon, Pacific & Eastern RR which was taken up in the mid-1990s, like so many other tracks around the country, to recycle the steel road and make walking and bicycle paths.
In the world today, a half-century after the movie’s making (1973), there are still shacks where the shackmen – brakemen, switchmen, and conductors – hang out, but no cabooses since the 1990’s when they were were replaced at the end of the freights by FRED, that we hobos call the F__ing Rear End Device. It’s a 12”-square red-blinking box that is an essential electronic caboose. If there’s no FRED, that freight isn’t going anywhere.
Now the companies have cut back the bulls to a skeleton crew, if any at all, in most yards in a financial strategy that makes it easier than ever to catch fast freights along the American gridiron. You have to see the movie to know the classic encounter between the railroad hobo and bull.