Breakheart Pass

Appearing on Blu-ray courtesy of Eureka comes Breakheart Pass, a solid and, at times, spectacular action vehicle for Charles Bronson penned by Scotland’s very own master-of-action Alistair MacLean and released in early 1976 following a premiere late the previous year.

The film takes place aboard a train heading towards an isolated Fort Humboldt in wintry Nevada in the late 1800s, Bronson playing Deakins, an outlaw and wanted man who has been apprehended at a rail stop by the US Army officers aboard the train who are on their way to the fort with much-needed medical supplies to treat an outbreak of diphtheria. Also on board are the fort commander’s daughter Marica, played by Bronson’s wife Jill Ireland, and her lover, the state governor (Richard Crenna).

As the journey progresses it soon becomes apparent that nothing and no-one are as they appear, and surprisingly in many respects the film has a great deal in common with 1974’s star-studded adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express directed by Sidney Lumet, something which apparently prompted Bronson into making this film.

Alistair MacLean had been a spectacularly successful novelist in the 1960s of a particular type of no-frills, pile-on-the-peril masculine thriller and many of his titles were adapted into successful films including Ice Station Zebra, The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare, however by the mid-seventies his star was waning, his books and their film adaptations becoming less popular.

The cast is peppered with numerous grizzled character actors of the time including Charles Durning, Ben Johnson, Ed Lauter and David Huddleston, but Bronson keeps the focus on himself through sheer star power. Although a limited actor technically, Bronson deploys what he has effectively and makes full use of his screen presence and trademark inscrutability.

At the time of filming Breakheart Pass Bronson was at the apex of his long career having scored a huge hit with Death Wish only two years previously, and here and he possesses a rare physical ease and confidence in the more demanding action sequences.

Breakheart Pass would be one of the last features directed by Tom Gries, released two years before his death in 1977 at the early age of fifty-four. Gries started out, like many low-budget feature directors of the seventies, in episodic television working on many of the biggest shows of the sixties before moving into features in 1967 with the highly-regarded Western Will Penny starring Charlton Heston, and continued to work on feature films and high-budget television movies right up until his death.

Gries’ experience in television production is quite obvious in Breakheart Pass which, at times, looks like a big-budget episode of Bonanza with added lurid violence; it appears to have been made on a tight schedule as there are several scenes with fundamental technical errors which would have been finessed with retakes on a bigger budget feature but which was clearly not an option here.

The film also uneasily straddles the tonal shift that occurred in Westerns when they moved from the epic romantic grandeur of the fifties and sixties to the grimy, ultra-realistic mud-slathered settings of the seventies, an evolution which continued for several more decades through Unforgiven to the more recent Bone Tomahawk and Hostiles.

The opening scene at the train halt features the modishly-obligatory slatternly prostitutes and rough-as-anything drinking holes but by the time the train sets off again and the action starts we are back in the world of pretty production design and a potential damsel in distress in the shape of Marica, Ireland’s role almost superficially decorative despite being the only significant female presence.

The film’s two saving graces are its frequent brutal action content and Charles Bronson himself, but despite its modest budget Gries makes the best of the spectacular location work in Idaho and Arizona and does manage to accommodate several action set-pieces using full-scale real trains and carriages that knock the spots off modern digital trickery including a derailment which carries the heft of a genuine crash.

The transfer seems to have been taken from an archive print in excellent condition and looks as good as one can expect for a modestly-budgeted film from the mid-seventies. The only extra on the disc is an excellent 25-minute interview with film historian Kim Newman who delivers an exemplary contextual piece on the film and its main personalities where he expresses the opinion that when Breakheart Pass was published in book form in 1974 it was actually a novelisation of an original screenplay, and indeed MacLean takes full screen credit for the script.

Breakheart Pass is available on Blu-ray from Eureka from Monday 21st May