Monday, December 26, 2016

Breakheart Pass: Murder on the Western Express

A murder mystery set aboard a train cruising through snow-covered mountains? Add Charles Bronson and an Old West setting and you've got Breakheart Pass. As discussed previously at this blog, I'm a big fan of mixed genres and, in particular, the Western mystery (see 5 Card Stud). This 1975 adaptation of Alastair MacLean's 1974 novel proved to be one of Charles Bronson's better 1970s films and has aged surprisingly well.

Bronson as the outlaw Deakin.
Bronson plays John Deakin, a minor outlaw who's arrested by a federal marshal (Ben Johnson) after cheating at cards in a tiny mining town. The marshal plans to transport Deakin to Fort Humboldt aboard a military train carrying a physician and medical supplies to the diphtheria-infected post. Odd things start happening before the train even departs. Two officers, tasked with decoding a message for the governor (Richard Crenna), disappear without a trace.

Once the train heads toward the snowy peaks, the plot thickens when the physician turns up dead. Deakin, a former lecturer on medicine, recognizes foul play when he sees it: "It's hard to believe, Major, we have a killer aboard." The audience also learns that there is no diphtheria at Fort Humboldt. Instead, a notorious outlaw has taken over the military post and plans to link up with a renegade band of Paiute Indians and attack the train.

Jill Ireland as the only woman aboard.
Breakheart Pass is one of those films that doesn't give you time to process the narrative. That's a good thing, because the plot--once it's fully unveiled--doesn't withstand close scrutiny. Deakin's presence aboard the train ultimately doesn't make any sense and the same applies to the governor's fiancee portrayed by Jill Ireland (Mrs. Bronson). Additionally, those viewers familiar with Alastair MacLean's earlier works, particularly Ice Station Zebra and Where Eagles Dare, will recognize some of the author's recycled plot twists.

Nothing of that matters, though, as Bronson's Deakin works to expose the killer, clashes with Archie Moore atop the speeding train, and participates in a wild climatic shoot-out. Hercule Poirot had a much easier time aboard the Orient Express!

Ben Johnson as the marshal.
Bronson is well cast as the sardonic hero. It's a less violent variation of the kind of roles that made him an international star in the early 1970s. The supporting cast is peppered by veteran character actors like Crenna, Johnson, Charles Durning, David Huddleston, and Ed Lauter. Look quick and you might spot future Oscar nominee Sally Kirkland and former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Joe Kapp.

One of my favorite stories about Breakheart Pass is from Roger Ebert's book Awake in the Dark. He describes the famous Swedish director Ingmar Bergman's visit to the film's set:

BERGMAN (to BRONSON):  Please explain to me what you're doing.

BRONSON:  Well, this is a scene where I get shot. So I'm wearing these squibs with fake blood under my shirt, and--but you know all this stuff. You're a director.

BERGMAN:  No, no. Please continue. This is all new to me.

BRONSON:  You mean you don't use guns in your pictures?


  1. Funny story.

    I guess it is about time I caught up with this movie. It's the right time of year for it.

  2. Another Dino De Laurentiis attempt at "Jaws"...

  3. Love that exchange between Charles Bronson and Ingmar Bergman.

    In my opinion, a film can easily be forgiven plot holes if it's entertaining. It sounds like this one is an entertaining as it gets. I'll have to watch for it – I think my husband would like it, too.

  4. Thanks for the reminder! By lucky coincidence, the movie was shown yesterday night, prime time on our national TV, and, searching for data about the movie I ran across this blog. So I watched it, although it was first delayed for an hour because the greetings to our medalists from Tokyo on central city square had to be transmitted live and then movie was interrupted by another greeting to our golden karate girl. But the movie was a gem of the seventies. It started almost as a comedy - although it tried to emulate sinister feelings of "Rio Lobo" - and peak of comics was reached when tied Bronson smiled to governor's mistress after she delivered her human rights speech. I loved funny color of the blood, like tempera paintings, Crenna's hair as of Engelbert Humperdinck or as of Farrah Fawcett, and Durning was at his best, as if he was the only one who decided to do the acting seriously. One could sense the marital chemistry between Mrs. Ireland and Bronson. I laughed when one of Indians extras who ran on the train stumbled and fell on the snow. In the next shot we see Indians on horses. Smart cut. And at the end, when Bronson stood beside the locomotive and put this hands in his pockets, I wondered where he could go in that wildness except for to ask his future father-in-law for a ride.