- Directed by Tom Gries
- December 25, 1975 (Finland)
A crooked gambler is being transported on a train full of medical supplies, but mysterious events show that not all is as it seems on that train.
I came across this Western rather by accident in a local used retailer. Breakheart Pass does not fall into the stereotype of the genre as it is a mystery set in the Old West. And it is a pretty good mystery with some interesting twists and turns. There are moments you do not quite expect and the depth of the conspiracy and what it entails is surprising.
Charles Bronson is mysterious gambler John Deakin who is accused of murder and finds himself on an army train heading for frontier military outpost Fort Humboldt. Humboldt is reported to be suffering from a diphtheria epidemic and the train is not only carrying medicine but relief troops.
Charles Bronson was a classic screen tough guy. When he was on camera, he just looked intimidating and dangerous. He did it with his stance and his eyes. But he also had talent and could make those he played more than just a dude to not piss off. They could be layered and intelligent. They could be complicated and charming.
His character of John Deakin clearly had a plan from the opening moments of the film but what his intentions could be were not clear. There is more going on with Deakin than one might think. From the first odd event Deakin gets himself involved in the investigation and at points does things to further that investigation without the knowledge of the other passengers. Not the actions of a gambler accused of his own set of crimes.
Wayne regular Ben Johnson plays U.S. Marshal Pearce. Johnson was a real cowboy and brought that to all his roles. Richard Crenna is Governor Richard Fairchild who is in charge of the train of supplies. Jill Ireland, Bronson’s real-life wife, was cast as Fairchild’s lover Marica whose father commands the fort. Charles Durning is O’Brien. Ed Lauter, who I guarantee you recognize from SOMETHING if you are of a certain age, is Major Claremont who leads the detachment assigned to the train as part of the relief effort for the affected troops at the fort.
Bill McKinney is Reverend Peabody. McKinney may not have been a household name but with film credits like Deliverance, The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, The Parallax View, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, The Gauntlet, Every Which Way but Loose, Any Which Way You Can, The Shootist and so many more you probably know him. And I did not even touch his television work. The man was on the prolific side.
David Huddleston is Dr. Molyneux. Huddleston is another not household name you will know if you have watched enough good stuff. He appeared in such films as Blazing Saddles, McQ, Smokey and the Bandit II, Santa Claus: The Movie, and The Big Lebowski for a short list.
As the story moves along it becomes obvious that there is no disease outbreak at Fort Humboldt. Strange events and mysterious disappearances on the ride point to a larger conspiracy going on. As the bodies and oddities pile up it becomes impossible to keep quiet or for the conspirators to control the outcome.
The plot involves most on the train in league with outlaw Levi Calhoun (Robert Tessier) who has taken over Fort Humboldt and has been transmitting false information. In league with Fairchild and most of those on the train the plan is to trade the guns the train is actually carrying with a tribe of Indians under Chief White Hand (Eddie Little Sky) in exchange for being able to mine gold on the tribe’s land and that gold will be smuggled out.
Heartbreak Pass is a rather entertaining movie. It is a well-paced who done it with the big question of why moving throughout. Bronson is great as the central character of Deakin. In later years he became known as a movie tough guy, but he had genuine talent.
Deakin is eventually revealed to be a US Secret Service agent around two thirds of the way through the film. Originally that reveal came closer to the end at Bronson’s suggestion but got moved up during filming. I agree with his suggestion. It would have enhanced the film and made the reveal more surprising. It does not ruin things though.
My only other gripe is that the movie just kind of stops. After the bad guys are dealt with when the train stops at the titular Breakheart Pass we get a shot of everyone wandering around the aftermath and that’s it. Just feels like the movie just packs up and leaves for the day. I am not sure how you give it a wrap up necessarily, but something needed to be done.
Despite my two concerns Breakheart Pass is a good film with a good story that is an interesting take on the Western genre. You don’t get many western mystery films. For Bronson fans as well as Western fans and even the general film viewer this is a watch it!