Breakheart Pass is an interesting attempt to do something different in the western genre. It’s a murder mystery/thriller in a western setting and it works rather well. It’s also a train thriller and there’s nothing I like better than a mystery thriller set on a train. In this case it’s a very cool 19th century Wild West steam train so it’s even better.
At the time the movie was released (1975) Alistair MacLean was still the hottest thriller writer around. In this instance he wrote the screenplay himself from his own novel. Most of MacLean’s books ended up being filmed and remarkably enough almost all the film adaptations are worth seeing.
In 1975 Charles Bronson was also a very big star so this is quite a big budget movie, and the money was well spent.
The plot is the sort of thing MacLean dearly loved - take a group of people, put them in an isolated place and put a murderer amongst them. Preferably in a place with lots of snow and ice. MacLean loved these kinds of settings and he knew how to derive the full benefit from them. The protagonists are not only faced with danger from within but must also struggle to survive in a harsh and unforgiving environment where nature will kill you just as readily as the murderer will. It’s the kind of setting used to great effect in MacLean novels like Night Without End and MacLean movie adaptations like Where Eagles Dare, Bear Island and Ice Station Zebra.
Breakheart Pass really is a train adventure movie. Virtually the entire movie takes place on the train. The train is a US Army on route to remote Fort Humboldt with urgent medical supplies. The fort is being ravaged by a diphtheria epidemic. On board the train is Governor Richard Fairchild (Richard Crenna), his girlfriend Marica (Jill Ireland), Dr Molyneux (David Huddleston), a clergyman and a detachment of soldiers under Major Claremont (Ed Lauter). When the train stops at a frontier outpost to take on water it acquires two more passengers. US Marshal Pearce (Ben Johnson) has just taken escaped murderer John Deakin (Charles Bronson) into custody and intends to take him to Fort Humboldt.
It doesn’t take long before the passengers make the unpleasant discovery that there is a murderer aboard the train. You might think Deakin would be the prime suspect but in fact he’s one of the few people on the train who cannot possibly be the killer - he has an alibi for the first murder. Deakin also becomes rather important when Dr Molyneux is removed from the scene - Deakin is a doctor himself and he’s now their only doctor and thus the only hope for the beleaguered garrison of Fort Humboldt.
There will be further murders. There’s not much anybody can do about it. They can’t turn back - they’re on an emergency medical mission. They can’t make contact with the outside world since the telegraph lines are mysteriously down. There are no towns at all out here. They just have to keep going until they reach the fort. And this is an Alistair MacLean world of snow and ice - anybody who leaves the train could not survive.
It’s a fine premise for a mystery thriller and it’s expertly executed by director Tom Gries with some excellent action set-pieces. A major bonus is Lucien Ballard’s glorious cinematography. The train itself looks wonderful and the scenery is spectacular. Nothing looks better than a Wild West steam train crossing a gorge spanned by a trestle bridge and as luck would have it there seem to be an amazing number of such gorges on the route to Fort Humboldt.
Bronson is in splendid form as the enigmatic Deakin. Bronson has the required tough guy charisma in spades and he has the subtlety to pull off this role - he never overplays but it’s always obvious that there is a lot more to this character than meets the eye. He gets solid support from the rest of the cast but this is Bronson’s film and he dominates it from start to finish.
Don’t bother looking too hard for messages or social comment or hidden meanings in this movie - Alistair MacLean’s success was based on his ability to deliver finely crafted pure entertainment and that’s what this movie provides. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.
The old MGM DVD (the one I watched) provides a pretty satisfactory anamorphic transfer. There’s now a Blu-Ray release and keen western fans (and Bronson fans) will probably want to go for that.
Breakheart Pass is a hugely enjoyable mix of action, adventure, suspense and mystery. It has Charles Bronson is fine form. It looks magnificent. What’s not to like? Highly recommended.