A train is bound for Fort Humboldt, a snowcapped US Army frontier outpost where an outbreak of fatal diphtheria has decimated the regiment leaving the fort vulnerable and open to attack. On board the train is a detachment of soldiers set to relieve the sick and deceased, a doctor, a preacher, the daughter of the commander of the fort and her escort, the well-heeled governor of Utah. Along the way, they stop off at the remote former prospecting township of Myrtle, where they encounter the local Marshal who successfully negotiates his passage on board the train in order to ferry the outlaw John Deakin to the gallows. As the train pulls out, its revealed that two cavalry officers have seemingly absconded, and they’re only the start of the train’s depleted passengers – before long, it seems a murderer is in their midst.
Based on the 1974 novel of the same name by Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare author Alistair MacLean, Breakheart Pass must have seemed like an anachronism or throwback when it arrived on the big screen a year later. American cinema at the time had been won over by the likes of Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Peter Bogdanovich; a group of young turks whose groundbreaking popcorn style was heralded as ‘New Hollywood’ in an emphatic contrast to the kind of pictures made in previous decades. Helmed by the 50 something TV veteran Tom Gries and produced by Elliott Kastner and Jerry Gershwin (who had past form with MacLean adaptations, bringing Where Eagles Dare and When Eight Bells Toll to the big screen in the swinging ’60s) Breakheart Pass is the kind of film that could have been made in 1965 or even 1955; a routine western featuring an enigmatic and taciturn central figure for whom there is more than initially meets the eye. That Deakin is played by Charles Bronson, the catfish mustachioed tough guy whose career in such similar fare stretches back to those decades, only serves to make Breakheart Pass as familiar as a pair of old slippers, and a world away from the cutting edge that was going of New Hollywood or the revisionist measures Clint Eastwood was bringing to the Western genre at the time. Bronson could play these kinds of roles in his sleep (indeed, you could argue that he sometimes did!) but his eyecatching, unconventional leading man looks and his natural quiet charisma really shine through here in this multi-faceted role. Just look at how he stands slightly apart from the rest of the cast upon the discovery of the first victim – the man was a star and he knew it.
Where Breakheart Pass surprises is the fact that it is quite a genre-bending piece. On the surface it looks like a routine western but once the killer begins to strike in the compartments and corridors of the steam train as it wends its way through the snowy peaks, we’re firmly in Agatha Christie territory. It is here that the mysterious Deakin comes into his own; arriving aboard the train in the custody of Ben Johnson’s Marshal, this outlaw cardsharp seemingly wanted for arson and murder soon reveals himself to be a former lecturer of medicine with a flair for deduction and, as such, becomes pivotal in putting the pieces together and keeping innocents from harm. But first of course he must try and win his fellow passengers – including Bronson’s real-life wife Jill Ireland, Richard Crenna’s governor and Ed Lauter’s army major – over and convince them that he is not the guilty party.
Given Alistair MacLean’s propensity for an over abundance of plots and several twists and turns, there’s a lot to pack into the 90 minute running time of Breakheart Pass – including surprise revelations, staggering levels of mass murder, double crosses, secret identities and a gang of ruthless outlaws led by menacing slaphead Robert Tesier pairing up with a tribe of Native Americans – yet you never feel over-faced by the events or the pacing of the piece. Gries turns in an undemanding piece of entertainment that manages to keep you invested even when it throws up such irritatingly outdated motifs such as a marauding ‘Red Injun’ threat in the final reel and a damsel in distress figure in Ireland that is virtually forgotten about for a good deal of this action. Nevertheless if, like me, you’re a fan of films set aboard trains, you’ll be in your element with this as all the key staples are here, most notably a stunning fight upon the top of the moving locomotive between Bronson and boxer-turned-actor Archie Moore, overseen by legendary stunt coordinator and second unit director Yakima Canutt. Aged 79 during the production, this proved to be his final film. Canutt was responsible for capturing the violent set piece of the train derailment in all its slo-mo glory. Although the 200ft drop into the canyon below looks spectacular, it’s worth pointing out that the dummies representing the unfortunate cavalry soldiers plummeting to their deaths failed to fall out during the crash!
Being a mid ’70s feature with a modest budget of $6million, Breakheart Pass can’t help look a little dated and (naturally) studiobound at times, but cinematographer Lucien Ballard’s makes much of the cramped confines of the rocking steam train, lending the piece a suitably unsettling claustrophobic air for the central mystery, and positively embraces the opportunities to get outside when they come along; capturing the snowy desolate landscapes and the Camas Prairie Railroad with much atmosphere, often enhanced by Jerry Goldsmith’s sometimes eerie score. Ultimately, Breakheart Pass is the kind of film you’re likely to have stumbled upon at Christmas and watched with the older members of your family, and there’s nothing wrong with that.