Following years of steady but dead-end employment as a supporting player, actor Charles Bronson abandoned Hollywood for the European continent where, very quickly, he established himself there and in Asia as a major star. It was during Bronson's "European period" that he made some of his best films: Farewell, Friend; Once Upon a Time in the West (both 1968); Rider on the Rain; Violent City (both 1970); and The Mechanic (1972) to name a few. Gradually, Bronson's European films began finding an audience in America, despite their spotty distribution.
Bronson was eventually called back to the majors, so to speak, to star in Hollywood-made films. Death Wish (1974), marketed as something like Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry but in fact superior in every way, was a huge hit, and for the next several years Bronson top-lined movies of varying quality (Hard Times, From Noon Till Three, and Telefon being the best of this post-Death Wish bunch), many cut from the same cloth as Eastwood's action vehicles.
Breakheart Pass was Bronson's second movie after Death Wish following the similarly-titled Breakout (also 1975) and was an adaptation of Scotsman Alistair MacLean's (The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra, Where Eagles Dare) 1974 novel, which MacLean also adapted for the screen. The movie is a promising and unusual Western, one that incorporates MacLean's signature style: a remote, sometimes perilous locale, mystery but without romantic subplotting, intrigue and plot twists.
Unfortunately, the movie doesn't live up to the potential of its intriguing first act. In large measure this seems due to the indifferent, unimaginative direction of Tom Gries, a surprise as he had made one of the best Westerns of the 1960s, Will Penny (1968). The writer-turned-director had made a name for himself on TV, episodes of shows like Mission: Impossible and I Spy and as the creator of The Rat Patrol. He returned to feature films with Will Penny and worked again with that film's star, Charlton Heston, on two more not-bad features, Number One (1969) and The Hawaiians (1970). After that Gries mostly helmed TV movies. He died of a heart attack at age 54 during the production of The Greatest (1977).
The movie's screenplay intriguingly begins much more like a MacLean novel and is unlike any typical Western plot. In 1870s Nevada, Governor Richard Fairchild (Richard Crenna) and his niece, Marcia (Jill Ireland) lead an Army train heading deep into the snow-capped mountains toward Fort Humboldt, which Marcia's father commands. Major Claremont (Ed Lauter) leads several carloads of troops with the only other civilian passengers on board being rail line executive O'Brien (Charles Durning), Dr. Molyneux (David Huddleston), and Reverend Peabody (Bill McKinney). Stopping off briefly at a small mining town, U.S. Marshal Nathan Pearce (Ben Johnson) joins the party as he's escorting a prisoner, notorious outlaw John Deakin (Bronson), while planning on transferring another prisoner from the fort. Just before departing, two of Claremont's best men mysteriously go missing.
The reason behind Fairchild's impatience is soon revealed: a diphtheria epidemic threatens Fort Humboldt, with so many troops dead or incapacitated they risk losing the post to hostile Indians. However, during the long, slow journey up into the mountains, Dr. Molyneux and others die under mysterious circumstances, Breakheart Pass becomes a whodunit and Deakin begins to suspect something far more sinister at play than a diphtheria epidemic.
Breakheart Pass has its good points: a strong cast dominated by emblematic ‘70s character actors (Lauter, Durning, Huddleston, Crenna); several strong action set pieces supervised by Yakima Canutt (his last credit) and his son, Joe; and the evocative, lonely Bitterroot Mountains, Idaho locations. Legendary boxer Archie Moore has a supporting role as the train's cook, sharing a nicely acted scene in the kitchen (galley?) with Bronson, and later they duke it out on top of the train.
But the promise shown in the movie's premise quickly evaporates. Partly this is because of MacLean's plot twist-filled story. The movie was advertised with the line, "Nothing is what it seems." This is almost literally true, at least in terms of its characters, but in so doing all the secret scheming also opens several gaping plot holes. In light of the direction the film eventually takes (details of which I won't reveal here), the story begs several questions: Why is wild card Deakin allowed on board the train in the first place? With his reputation as a heartless killer, why is he allowed to roam the train freely, unescorted, enabling him to unlock the many mysteries about the journey?
Gries's lackluster direction, more in the style of a high-end TV movie and showing little effort to enhance the intrigue (his previous film with Bronson, Breakout, is likewise sloppily directed), seriously damages the film. In one key scene, for example, three cars at the end containing nearly all the troops, is deliberately uncoupled on a steep incline, causing them to perilously roll downhill, out of control. Gries shoots and edits this sequence ineptly. The gradual panic inside the cars with the men is photographed from bad angles and with no build-up. Outside, Gries prematurely cuts away, no less than three times, to the spot along the line where the cars will derail, but again the angle of this location is so badly chosen the audience isn't even entirely sure what they're looking at. And when the cars finally do derail, Gries opts to show the crash in extreme slow motion, lingering on the shot long enough that it becomes obvious to the audience that the splintering cars are completely empty.
MacLean's screenplay and Gries's direction also give away too much, revealing plot points too early, and especially in pointless scenes featuring familiar bald baddie Robert Tessier (one of the imposing boxers in Hard Times), here strangely dubbed by Paul Frees. It would have been better to unfold the story entirely from Deakin's point-of-view, to have the audience methodically unravel what's really going on at the same time he does.
Video & Audio
Breakheart Pass was shot for 1.85:1 widescreen, and Kino's video transfer, supplied by MGM, is just adequate. It's not the disaster that The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is, but it's fairly lifeless, neither as sharp nor as richly hued as it should be. The mono audio is likewise just okay; English subtitles are provided and the disc is Region A encoded.
The lone supplement is a trailer, which does a good if spoiler-filled job selling the picture.
Intriguing but disappointing, Breakheart Pass still offers just enough interest to be worth a look, but there are both better and better-looking Bronson titles out on Blu-ray. Mildly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.