By Linc Leifeste | August 10, 2014
Director: Tom Gries
Writer: Alistair MacLean
Starring: Charles Bronson, Ben Johnson, Richard Crenna, Jill Ireland, Charles Durning, Ed Lauter, Bill McKinney, David Huddleston, Roy Jenson, Rayford Barnes, Scott Newman, Robert Tessier
Kino Lorber Studio Classics continues their impressive Blu-ray release schedule of classic but largely forgotten films for a second month and among the new releases is 1975’s Breakheart Pass, directed by big-screen and TV veteran Tom Griese (this was his last film with the exception of his made-for-TV movie covering the Manson killings and a poorly received Muhammad Ali biopic starring Ali as himself). Ostensibly a Western, the story is set in the 1870’s and features men wearing guns on their hips, a pistol-packing Marshal, a band of marauding Indians, a murderous outlaw, a train rolling down the tracks, lots of lever-action Winchesters and countless sticks of dynamite. But what makes this Western somewhat unique and wildly entertaining is that it’s something of a genre-bender, with the majority of the murder mystery story taking place on board a train, more Murder on the Orient Express than Rio Bravo.
The aforementioned train is being sent to a distant fort in the grip of a deadly diphtheria outbreak. On board are crates of medicine and among others, a doctor, a preacher, a detachment of soldiers, the governor of Utah (Richard Crenna) and the fort commander’s daughter (Jill Ireland), whom he’s escorting and not too discreetly carrying on with. At a stop-off on the way they encounter a mysterious wanted outlaw, John Deakin (Charles Bronson), cheating at poker. It seems he’s a former university lecturer who’s wanted for a long list of criminal offenses including arson and murder. Arrested by Marshal Pearce (Ben Johnson), he soon finds himself in captivity on the train, headed to prison, a trial, and maybe a date with a short rope and a long drop. But before the train pulls out again, it’s discovered that a couple of soldiers are missing. Unable to locate them, they opt to move on without them.
Lucien Ballard’s cinematography is striking, both for the memorable shots of the train rumbling across snowy landscapes and the equally striking cramped shots inside the rocking train, imbuing viewers with a claustrophobic, slightly nauseous sensation, a feeling that is only amplified as it slowly becomes clear that someone on board the train is killing off the passengers one by one. It’s also revealed that the fort to which the train is traveling is actually under the control of a murderous criminal band led by Levi Calhoun (Robert Tessier), whose men are replying to the train’s occasional telegraph messages as though they are the fort’s soldiers, luring the train onward. It falls to the outlaw Deakin to escape his bonds and solve the mystery of who is murdering the train’s passengers. Bronson is superb in the role, a believable, canny tough guy of few words, with his rugged anti-Hollywood not-traditionally-good looks making his career successes all the more admirable.
To say more of the film’s plot details would be to risk revealing its plot twists, essential to the enjoyment of the film, but suffice it to say that there are numerous characters who turn out to be other than they initially appear. While probably not an all-time classic, Breakheart Pass is still worthy of renewed attention for a number of reasons, including the talented ensemble cast (some of whom are not given as much to work with as might be hoped) and the striking cinematography. But if for no other reason than the work of legendary stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt, this is a must-see film. Beyond the train cars derailing spectacularly off of trestles, men plummeting from bridges to their painful deaths, Indians boarding moving trains from horseback, there is one spellbinding snow-covered moving-train-top fight between Deakin and the train’s chef (Archie Moore, boxer turned actor) that will forever stay in viewers’ memories and is alone worth the price of admission.