Take a moment and look at the cover art for this Blu-ray which is the recreation of the original poster. It is a cool image. There’s Charles Bronson hanging off the edge of a train. Someone is about to stomp on his fingers. The train trundles over a high overpass. We can see the great expanse of the Rocky Mountains below. In the distance, a trial of men can be seen on their horses. That’s a great poster. It is the sort of art I want to hang on my wall. It makes me want to watch that film.
I did watch that film. Sadly, the poster is the best thing about it. Breakheart Pass (1975) is a western mystery that takes place primarily on a train. If Agatha Christie ever wrote about cowboys, it might come out like this. In the late 1800s, there is a diphtheria outbreak in a remote frontier outpost. A group of soldiers is sent by train to lend a hand. At a whistlestop, a U.S. Marshall named Pearce (Ben Johnson) asks for a lift but is denied since the train is headed into a health hazard. But before they leave, the Marshall spies John Deakin (Charles Bronson), a notorious thief and murderer, at the local watering hole and demands that they both be taken to someplace Deakin can be hanged.
All aboard and it isn’t long before folks start getting themselves murdered. The guy who shoves the wood into the steam engine finds himself shoved right off the train while it’s rolling over a very high overpass. He tumbles a good hundred feet down the wooden bridge to his death. A little later, someone disconnects several cars from the rest of the train and it (along with most of the soldiers) goes zooming down the mountain until it crashes over the side of that same bridge. I’m pretty sure that same bridge shows up at least two more times later in the movie though the train should be miles away by those points. I’m guessing the filmmakers just liked the look of it, and the site of bodies tumbling down it.
Actually, let’s talk about the filmmaking here for just a moment. When the train gets disconnected and starts rolling backward, this ought to be one of the film’s most exciting set pieces. But I found it rather dull and confusing. We get a couple of shots up above the train, letting us see the disconnected portion rolling downhill. Inside, there is confusion; the Sergeant yells at his soldiers to stay in their bunks as if there is nothing going on. Once he realizes what’s happening, he starts yelling and someone says something about the brakes, but no one seems to try to use them and it is unclear where the brakes are. The camera keeps cutting to a shot at the bridge, but it is set low, with part of the bridge looming large in the picture. Just above we see the tracks but not the train. It cuts to this shot several times before finally, we see the train rush into view then zoom off the bridge and crash. It is a nice shot and it follows the train as it smashes into the side of the mountain. I can only assume there wasn’t another spot to place the camera on that location but I cannot understand why they cut to it so often before the train even came into view. All of this makes the scene feel limp where it should make your heart race.
A lot of the movie is like this. In the hands of a better director, this story, which is a good one I think, could have made a great movie. As it is, it just feels flat.
Deakin is an odd criminal. Once the train gets into the mountain and there is no means of escape, or at least if he did escape, no chance of survival in the brutal mountainous conditions, the Marshall leaves him alone. His hands and feet are tied with rope. He uses a bit of furniture to cut the lines around his hands but then Marica (Jill Ireland), the governor’s fiancée (who is also aboard), walks in. He asks her to untie his legs so they can have a stretch and she obliges. Then he shows her his untied hands and she panics. He assures her he means no harm. They have a nice chat and then he asks to be tied back up. Apparently, he did just need a stretch.
Later, he’s given pretty much full reign of the train and acts as both doctor and detective. This is helpful as people keep getting hurt and killed and nobody seems to know who the culprit is. I won’t spoil it but he’s probably not exactly what he seems to be. Nobody is. Somebody is making sure that anyone who might be connected to law and order find themselves dead. Up at Breakheart Pass, we find a few bad guys in cahoots with some Indians which will no doubt lead to a showdown later.
It all comes together as passable entertainment. The mix of western tropes and drawing-room mystery set on a train is really interesting. But it never quite works for me. I’ve always liked Bronson but I realize I’ve only ever seen him in big ensemble pieces like The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven. He’s a wonderful character actor, but he doesn’t seem comfortable taking the lead in this film. There’s a nice cast surrounding him including Richard Crenna and Charles Durning, all of which makes me wish I liked this film more than I do.
Oh well, I can still hang that really cool poster on my wall.
Kino Lorber presents Breakheart Pass with a new 2K remaster. Extras include a new audio commentary from film historians Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell, and Nathaniel Thompson, and an assortment of trailers.