Film: Breakheart Pass (1975)
The Principals: Director: Tom Gries. Starring: Charles Bronson, Ben Johnson, Jill Ireland, Richard Crenna, Charles Durning
The Premise: A stream train chugs into the bleak and ramshackle town of Myrtle. It’s packed with an odd assortment of characters: a troop of U.S. Army soldiers, a beautiful blonde and a governor, a reverend, and a puffed up politician. Though there’s a few characters desperate to get out of Myrtle — in particular, a grim lawman named Pearce — they aren’t letting civilians onto the train. It’s on its way to Fort Humboldt with relief for a diphtheria outbreak.
But you know who else is hanging around Myrtle? John Deakin (Bronson) who is quite calmly playing cards until someone accuses him of cheating. Conveniently, Pearce also spots his wanted poster in the local newspaper, and takes him into custody. Due to the nature of his crimes (which involve wiping out an entire town), the train has to let the lawman bring him onto the train, and take him to justice.
But there are games afoot! Everyone is acting awfully suspicious on this train, and shooting each other furtive glances. At first, it seems to be nerves about the diphtheria outbreak, but then the bodies start piling up. There’s a murderer aboard this train, and no one — least of all Deakin — is above suspicion. Deakin takes it upon himself to sort out the truth before he meets a quick and brutal end.
That’s my way of telling you that it’s a slow movie. This isn’t a shoot ‘em up Western, it’s a murder mystery. It’s two steps away from being Murder on the Orient Express, a story that was undoubtedly Alastair MacLean’s inspiration. (And probably the reason it was made when it was. Sidney Lumet’s Orient adaptation was released a mere year before this movie, and no one has missed the comparison.)
But its conceit is what makes it pretty refreshing for not only a Bronson film, but a Western. Whenever people say “I hate Westerns! They’re all the same!”, I like to point them to oddball features like these where the genre setting is incidental to the plot. With a few tweaks, Breakheart Pass could take place at any time and in any kind of contained place, and be a good ride.
There are some good chunks of action, too. A lot of the snowy set pieces are reminiscent of MacLean’s famous thriller, Where Eagles Dare. Just replace the gondola with a train car roof, or Nazis with Native Americans. MacLean had a formula, but dammit, it worked! And we’ve been ripping elements off ever since. In fact, I suspect Rockstar may have given this a look before programming the train missions in Red Dead Redemption. Even if I’m reaching, flinging John Marston onto such shaky ground gives me a new appreciation for Bronson’s heroics. I bet it will do the same for you.
But you know what the biggest mystery of Breakheart Pass is? It’s not who is pummeling and flinging people to terrible ends. It’s what in the hell Whiteheart the Native chief is wearing as a snowsuit. I’d screen-cap it, but that would ruin the surprise and confusion for you. Believe me, you’ll know it when you see it.
Random Anecdotes: The first Western MacLean ever attempted … and due to its poor reception as a book, I believe it was his last. I’m not 100% certain on that. He wrote a lot of books.
Cinematic Soulmates: Runaway Train, Where Eagles Dare