Breakheart Pass (1975)

AKA: Alistair Maclean’s Breakheart Pass
Director: Tom Gries
Starring: Charles Bronson, Ben Johnson, Richard Crenna, Jill Ireland, Ed Lauter, Charles Durning, David Huddleston
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Based on the novel by Alistair Maclean

Breakheart Pass is a weird hybrid, partly Western, partly ‘whodunnit’, and finally spy thriller. But mostly it is pure old fashioned seventies entertainment. But not quite like you’d expect.

By the mid seventies the spy film had become quite jaded. Bond-mania, which had driven the genre along during the sixties had died down, and even the serious anti-Bond films, like Scorpio, or Permission To Kill, had worn out their welcome. Writer Alistair Maclean, a veteran of the genre, decided to move into different territory, whilst still keeping all the espionage elements that had become his trademark in place. He moved towards the ‘western’. At the time, even the western film was suffering. The Spaghetti Westerns from Italy had breathed fresh life into the tired old genre, but even they had run their course. So in Breakheart Pass, in which Alistair Maclean wrote the screenplay, based on his novel, we have two tired genres rolled into one.

I am pleased to say that the idea really works. Maybe the traditionalists may be up in arms, saying that it is not really a spy film, but I beg to differ. I could explain why, but to detail the plot would give away a few of the surprises this movie has in store, but in simplified terms it is the story of a few characters in the old west who are on a steam train, as it winds through the Rocky Mountains to Fort Humboldt The cavalry fort is in the middle of a dipheria plague. The train contains medical supplies and troops who will replace the sick and dying men, as well as Governor Fairchild (Richard Crenna) who is leading the ragtag band to the fort. Along for the ride is Major Claremont (Ed Lauter), the cavalry officer in charge of the replacement troops, John Deakin (Charles Bronson), a gambler and a murderer, and Ben Johnson as Nathan Pearce, the US Marshall who is escorting him to trial.

Breakheart Pass features another great score by Jerry Goldsmith. For each Goldsmith soundtrack I come across, I am constantly astounded at the high quality and diversity of his work. This score may not be Goldsmith’s most subtle work, but essentially we have a movie about a train, and in keeping, he gives us a powerful, brassy, driving theme and motifs throughout the movie. It’s a good one.

I am going to go out on a limb here. Bronson made many great films as a part in an ensemble cast; The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, and Once Upon A Time In The West to name but a few. But in films where he solely carried the story, the success rate is considerably lower. I think of Bronson’s solo efforts, Breakheart Pass is his best film. It’s a big call, but if you stack up the Death Wish movies, Mr. Majestyk, The Evil That Men Do and it’s ilk, for pure enjoyment, and a great performance, Breakheart Pass is the one!

This review is based on the MGM Home Entertainment USA DVD

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