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Frank Sidebottom The Home of the Retrospective


Breakheart Pass (1975) Blu Ray & DVD (Eureka!)

An eventful train ride

This Western action-thriller, set during the American Civil War, focuses on a train carrying a battalion of Yankee soldiers through the snow-covered mountains to Fort Humboldt. Amongst the passengers are Major O’Brien (Ed Lauter) who is in charge of the troops, Marshal Pierce (Ben Johnson) who helps to keep law and order, and a Governor named Richard Fairchild (Richard Crenna) who claims that the soldiers are needed for an urgent mission. The Governor is also travelling with his lover Marica (Jill Ireland) in tow.

When they stop off to get fresh water for the steam engine, the Marshal discovers a man - who introduces himself as John Deakin (Charles Bronson) - cheating at cards in the saloon. When he also discovers that his face appears on a wanted poster, he forces him to join them on the train as a prisoner to stand trial at their destination.

However, as they continue on their journey a number of acts of sabotage and murder occur. Moreover, Deakin suddenly proves himself to have some unusually shrewd detective skills. Who is this mysterious outlaw? More to the point, who is responsible for killing off the various characters on the train, and why?

Watch a trailer:

Charles Bronson at his career peak

In the wake of the phenomenal success of Death Wish (1974), archetypal tough-guy actor Charles Bronson hit a career peak. During the subsequent year, no less than three of his films hit cinemas: Hard Times (the directorial debut of Walter Hill), Breakout and Breakheart Pass (both of which were directed by Tom Gries). The one I am reviewing here, Breakheart Pass, also fits somewhere in the middle of a 1970s spate of movies which revolve around train journeys fraught with intrigue and peril, including Horror Express (1972), Emperor of the North (1973), the Sidney Lumet version of Murder on the Orient Express (1974), The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), Silver Streak (1976) and The Cassandra Crossing (1976).

While Breakheart Pass is neither Bronson’s best film (that would be Sergio Leone’s epic Once Upon a Time in the West) nor even his best from 1975 (that would be Hard Times), it still manages to be a decently entertaining effort with high production values. Bronson’s on good form as the mysterious central protagonist of the piece. The script does attempt to work in some ambiguity over who he really is and his true motivations. However, being that he is played by one of the world’s most popular actors of the time, we’re never in any real doubt that he’ll turn out to be the hero of the day. That said, there’s enough in the way of intrigue and twists in Alistair MacLean’s story to keep things bubbling along nicely.

A superior cast

The supporting cast includes an obligatory role for Jill Ireland, who was Bronson’s wife from 1968 until her untimely death from breast cancer in 1990. While she popped up as the female lead in many of his films, her performances, sadly, rarely rose above mediocre - and here is no exception. The rest of the cast members, however, are considerably better. Various dependable stalwarts such as Ben Johnson, Richard Crenna, Charles Durning and Ed Lauter solidly fill out their respective characters’ boots. There’s also a smaller but still crucial role for the bald, hulking Robert Tessier as one of the bad guys. He played a similarly antagonistic character opposite Bronson in Hard Times. The strong supporting cast is a real shot in the arm for the film since these talented actors bring some life to Tom Gries’s somewhat pedestrian handling of the dialogue scenes.

A train in Breakheart Pass

Thankfully, the action is suitably thrilling and spectacular when it comes. There’s a hair-raising fight on top of a train with some precarious dangling over a huge drop from a railway bridge, filmed from overhead for a maximum sense of vertigo. The film is topped off with a rousing climactic battle, embellished with some superb wide-angle shots featuring large numbers of extras on horseback. There are also scenes involving train carriages either being blown up or careening off the track down a steep hillside which clearly feature full-scale mockups rather than the miniatures which are so typical of films of this period. The decision to splash out this bit of extra budget really adds impact to the proceedings.

I enjoyed Breakheart Pass quite a bit. It comes from an era when action films didn’t have an imperative towards hyperactive pacing and relied, instead, on developing pure heart-in-mouth excitement by putting real stuntmen in genuinely dangerous situations.

Runtime: 95 mins

Dir: Tom Gries

Script: Alistair MacLean, from his own novel

Starring: Charles Bronson, Ben Johnson, Richard Crenna, Jill Ireland, Charles Durning, Ed Lauter, Bill McKinney, David Huddleston, Robert Tessier

DVD Audio-Visual

I was given the DVD version at best and, unfortunately, the visual quality is very uneven. Some shots look pretty good, whereas the colour grading seems right off in others. A handful of the long shots are incongruously faded and grainy, looking more like stock footage inserts than scenes shot for the actual film (although I believe that they were, indeed, the latter). Sound-wise, everything is fine; the dialogue is as clear as a bell and Jerry Goldsmith’s traditional Western score sounds suitably glorious.


Kim Newman Interview

Just the one extra here but it’s a good one. It’s a 25-minute discussion on the film courtesy of the always lively and boundlessly enthusiastic Newman. He cites the film’s inclusion in what he calls a 1970s “middle ground” between the grindhouse fare of Roger Corman and the respectable Coppola/Scorsese Oscar winners, inhabited by disaster movies and lean-mean action pictures featuring the likes of Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson. He also takes a look at the career of author Alistair MacLean, whose books were regularly adapted into such guy-friendly fare as Where Eagles Dare (1968) - a film where Newman recalls one of his school friends seeing and claiming that he counted Eastwood killing 84 Nazis!

In the end, he summarises the appeal of Breakheart Pass in a nutshell by opining: “If it’s a gloomy Sunday afternoon you could do a lot worse.”


A decent enough 1970s action-adventure. The visual quality of the DVD could have been better but, nonetheless, it’s perfectly watchable.

Movie: ☆☆☆1/2

Video: ☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆

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