Though he spent most of the ’70s starring in ultraviolent thrillers, Charles Bronson also displayed a lighter touch in occasional escapist adventures. One of the most diverting of these efforts is Breakheart Pass, adapted by bestselling novelist Alistair MacLean from his own book. Breakheart Pass is a Western thriller gene-spliced with bits and bobs from the espionage and murder-mystery genres, set primarily on a passenger train barreling through the wintry wilds of the Midwest. Governor Fairchild (Richard Crenna) is on board the train to oversee the delivery of medical supplies to a fort that’s suffering an outbreak of diphtheria. During a routine stop in a frontier town, U.S. Marshal Pearce (Ben Johnson) talks his way into passage on the train, bringing along his prisoner, medical lecturer-turned-suspected murderer Deakin (Bronson). Once the train gets moving again, several passengers are mysteriously killed, so Deakin sniffs around and discovers that the diphtheria outbreak is a ruse invented to cover a heinous conspiracy to which the governor is party. So, in the classic mode, Deakin has to figure out whom he can trust as he smokes out the bad guys, all while racing the clock before the train arrives at a rendezvous with destiny.
Breakheart Pass is enjoyably overstuffed with manly-man excitement: The picture has bloodthirsty criminals, fistfights atop moving trains, marauding Indians, revelations of secret identities, shootouts in the snowy wilderness, unexpected double-crosses, and even a spectacular crash. As with most of MacLean’s stories, credibility takes a backseat to generating pulpy narrative, so trying to unravel the story afterward raises all sorts of questions about logic and motivation. Still, Breakheart Pass is thoroughly enjoyable in a cartoonish sort of way. Veteran TV director Tom Gries keeps scenes brisk and taut, and he benefits from a cast filled with top-notch character players, including Charles Durning, David Huddleston, Ed Lauter, Bill McKinney, and others. As for the leading players, Bronson presents a likeable version of macho nonchalance, while Crenna essays his oily character smoothly. Predictably, the female lead is Bronson’s real-life wife, Jill Ireland, who costarred in a dozen of her husband’s ’70s pictures.
Breakheart Pass: GROOVY