During The Great Depression, legendary hobo "A no. 1" (Marvin) vows to be the first man to successfully hitch a ride on the train run by the brutal conductor Shack (Borgnine), who has vowed to prevent such a thing from ever happening, in competition with a young upstart who is known as Cigaret (Carradine). The resulting battle is memorably bloody.
Contains examples of:
- Big Bad: Shack, the conductor who is determined to never let a hobo ride his train.
- Boisterous Weakling: "Ol' Cigaret" is always boasting about how he's the toughest hobo riding the rails, but the real veteran 'A-No. 1' has his number right from the start. At the end of the movie, he's so fed up with Cigaret's bragging that he just picks him up and throws him off the train into a lake.
- Cool Train: Oregon Pacific & Eastern No. 19, the locomotive who appears most in the film as head of "Shack's train".
- Disproportionate Retribution: Try to steal a ride on this train? The conductor will smash your head in with a hammer and watch as you get cut in half by the train wheels.
- The Film of the Book: Partially based on Jack London's 1907 memoir, The Road.
- The Great Depression: The background of the film, emphasizing those that went around the country trying to find a job or vacation in their own way.
- Hobos: Naturally.
- Hollywood Fire: Averted; Shack gets a full dose of smoke to the lungs when he checks inside a burning boxcar.
- Jerkass: Shack, who hates hobos and is bound and determined to never let one ride his train.
- Jerkass Has a Point: Subverted. Wanting to keep hobos from sneaking onto your train and riding it without paying is understandable, but that does not justify Shack's attempts to injure/kill the hobos.
- Just Train Wrong: Averted as well; The Oregon Pacific and Eastern made sure to instruct Ernest Borgnine and the actors playing the crew on the realities on train operation, so everything that does go wrong is deliberate and realistic.
- Miles Gloriosus: Cigaret, the young hobo who challenges A No. 1 to become top hobo and "Emperor of the North", ducks out of the way and chickens out, while A No. 1 is left to fight Shack all by himself. A No. 1 is furious when Cigaret boasts "we did it", when A No. 1 had to fight Shack all by himself while Cigaret was hiding, and he punches his cowardly rival off the train for trying to share the glory when he didn't lift a finger to help A No. 1.
- Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Shack tries to teach any would-be riders a lesson by "highballing", leaving the station at full speed instead of letting it gradually build up, which not only hurts the locomotive's boiler, but results in him getting delayed when his train gets side-tracked on a sidingnote , and he has to spend extra time getting his train back on tracknote , and the hobos laugh at his gutsy blunder.
- Only One Name: Shack the conductor, and Cigaret the young bum, among others.
- Runaway Train: Shack pushes his luck, but the train is never out of control.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: A No. 1 gives an epic one to Cigaret after he sees what a rotten coward he is in the end:A No. 1: Hey kid, you got no class. Hit the bums, kid. Run like the devil, get a tin can and take up mooching, knock on back doors for a nickel, tell them your story, make 'em weep. You could have been a meat-eater, kid, but you didn't listen to me when I laid it down. Stay off the tracks. Forget it. Its a bum's world for a bum. You'll never be Emperor of the North Pole, kid. You had the juice, kid, but not the heart and they go together. You're all gas and no feel, and nobody can teach you that, not even A No. 1. So stay off the train, she'll throw you under for sure, remember me for that. So long, kid!
- Underside Ride: The hobos try this for part of the journey. Shack retaliates by attaching a large metal pin to a length of wire and playing it out beneath where the hobos are hanging. The pin repeatedly rebounds off the track ties and hits the hobos' bodies with bruising force.
- Traintop Battle: And under the train...and on the side of the train...