Director: Tom Gries
Script: Alistair Maclean
Cast: Charles Bronson, Ben Johnson, Jill Ireland, Charles Derning, Ed Lauter, Bill McKinnery, Dave Huddleston, Richard Crenna
Running time: 95 minutes
Back when I was growing up I didn’t have much in common with my dad, unfortunately. He loved sport (mostly football and cricket), and choral music (which he sang really well), and I loved movies, dinosaurs, and nerdy stuff like comic books and monsters, hence, unsurprisingly, we didn’t ‘hang-out’ together much. However, as I got a bit older I found out that we did enjoy watching boxing and certain types of films together, especially those starring the likes of Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Lee Marvin and stony-faced Charles Bronson. And Mr Bronson is where this review comes in; since Breakheart Pass is one of the first Bronson films that I remember being allowed to watch on TV, with my parents, since they were usually broadcast later on at night. There was no ‘watch what you want, when you want’ back in the 70s and 80s!
Breakheart Pass is one of Bronson’s tamer films, a fact reflected in this release’s BBFC certificate of PG. Old Charlie-boy is probably better known for some of his ultra-violent ‘man-on-a-mission’ films, such as Death Wish and 10 to Midnight. You might also remember him from ensemble pieces like The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, which also happen to be two of my favourite films. Anyway, I digress!
Breakheart Pass is an action-packed mystery western based on the best-selling novel by ‘boy’s own’ author Alistair MacLean, who also wrote the likes of The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, Puppet on a Chain, and Ice Station Zebra, to name but a few of his very cool novels.
Set during the height of the frontier era of the ‘Wild West’, which saw steam power locomotives romantically racing across vast, impressive landscapes, including the Rocky Mountains where this story is set, Breakheart Pass sees John Deakin (Bronson) captured by troopers from a train, who are stopping off for water at a rough mining town, since he’s allegedly wanted for murder. However, he seems to be more than just a man on the run, and he soon finds himself embroiled in a murder mystery situation, a situation that threatens the lives of everyone on-board the troop carrier he suddenly finds himself on.
On the way to the train’s final destination, Mr Deakin finds himself dealing with corrupt troopers and politicians, rescuing a governor’s girlfriend (Jill Ireland), fighting with mercenaries and Red Indians, and pulling off cool stunts like running and fighting along the top of a moving train as it passes through a mountain pass, which has to be one of the stand-out scenes in the movie.
Breakheart Pass not only features some breath-taking scenery, but all the lush visuals are nicely underpinned by a rousing score by the awesome Jerry Goldsmith.
Acting-wise Bronson does what he does best, looking and acting tough and resilient, and generally remaining stony-faced throughout, apart from during a couple of scenes where he’s interacting with Ireland, who was also his wife in real-life, after she spilt up with actor David MaCallum (The Invisible Man). I have a theory that Charles Bronson felt actual pain if he smiled, hence the general lack of them during his acting career! As for the rest of the cast, they’re all pretty good, especially the likes of Richard (First Blood) Crenna and Ben (The Last Picture Show) Johnson. Jill Ireland’s role is somewhat underwritten so one can forgive her character’s general lack of impact, since she proved her acting chops in other films with better-written roles. Here, she’s mostly just there as window-dressing and featuring as a lady-in-peril for the hero to rescue.
Director Tom Gries had made Breakout with Charles Bronson prior to this film, before moving primarily into television work, with the likes of: Mission Impossible, The Man from UNCLE and, one of my own favourites, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
Breakheart Pass isn’t one of Bronson’s or MacLean’s best works, but it’s certainly very entertaining and moves along at a fair old clip, papering over the gaps in plot logic and some examples of iffy dialogue here and there. It’s most definitely worth a look, especially if you’re a fan of Westerns, particularly those featuring trains and murder mysteries. Just think of it as ‘Murder on the Breakheart Express’ and you won’t go far wrong!
Eureka Entertainment is distributing Breakheart Pass on Blu-Ray, with a DVD too. As per usual for Eureka! there are some decent special features including:
- An interview with film journalist Kim Newman (25 Mins) – the ever knowledgeable Newman talks in detail about how the film fits into the pantheon of action films, and explains about author MacLean and his career. Like me, Kim reveals that he sat and watched this film with his dad on first viewing, although they went to the cinema to see it, lucky sods! He reckons that MacLean should really be credited with inventing the big screen action movie as it is today, writing plenty of precursors to the Die Hards of later years. Apparently MacLean’s script for the film is very close to his short book of the same name.
- Trailer (3.06 mins) – featuring ‘Mr Exploitation Flick voice-over-man’, and including quite a graphic gun-shot to the head!