Breakheart Pass Review
There are actors that have put their stamp on films and eras and that make you want to discover all the films they’ve been in, despite their intrinsic qualities. Charles Bronson (Once Upon A Time in The West) arguably belonged to this category of actors. In the 1960s and 1970s, he regularly lent his stoic and stern features to a series of tough characters and made an imperishable impression on audiences in films like Once Upon a Time in the West, The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape, Battle of the Bulge, Rider on the Rain, Hard Times, The Mechanic, and Death Wish. Breakheart Pass might not equal these films but it has many qualities that make it an exciting film, if not an unforgettable effort.
At the height of the frontier era, a locomotive races through the Rocky Mountains on a classified mission to a remote Army post. But one by one, the passengers are being murdered. Their only hope is John Deakin (Bronson), a mysterious prisoner-in-transit who must fight for his life – and the lives of everyone on the train – as he uncovers a deadly secret that explodes in a torrent of shocking revelations, explosive brawls and blazing gun battles.
It was released in 1975 after a great run for Bronson playing leading roles in European films at the end of the 1960s. Following the success of Farewell, Friend with Alain Delon (The Leopard) and of course Sergio Leone’s operatic masterpiece Once Upon A Time in the West. Bronson, once a supporting role in American movie, had become a successful lead in European films and, at the very end of the 1960s was enticing projects now proposed to him in the US as well, starting with Michael Winner’s Chato’s Land.
Breakheart Pass was adapted by Alistair MacLean’s from its novel of the same name (his on Western). At the time MacLean was a big name in Hollywood having, or having seen, adapted several of his novels for the screen (the most famous being The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare). Even though the novel isn't original (it can easily be described as a Western version of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians or The Crime of the Orient Express), the book and adaptation are extremely effective because MacLean clearly knows how to craft suspenseful intrigue which can keep an audience guessing.
The film was directed by Tom Gries, an honourable director, with Westerns like Will Penny or 100 Rifles, who made most of his career in television. Gries had already directed Bronson a year before in the Action Drama Breakout and with Breakheart Pass, he fulfils his director role in a similarly efficient manner. The train setting is excitingly exploited (there are some great iconic train shots throughout) and what the film lacks in iconic character shots is compensated by an efficient mise-en-scène devoted to illustrating MacLean’s screenplay - for instance Bronson’s character is introduced coming out of nowhere on his way to a saloon - nothing superfluous just competent filming.
Breakheart Pass makes quite a durable impression in many aspects: Its setting, which draws comparison relatively speaking to Sergio Corbucci’s Western masterpiece The Great Silence (snowy environment and almost mute hero), its fantastic cast of supporting roles who are all again efficiently introduced within the first five minutes of the movie including (Ben Johnson (The Wild Bunch), Richard Crenna (First Blood), Charles Durning (Dog Day Afternoon), Ed Lauter (Cujo), Bill McKinney (Deliverance), Robert Tessier (Hard Times), David Huddleston (The Big Lebowski) and Archie Moore (The Outfit) with whom Bronson has a formidable fight scene on top of the train. Last but not least, the music composed by the great Jerry Goldsmith - who also scored Breakout for Gries and had just scored some of his best work for Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and John Milius’ The Wind and the Lion) - plays a key role in the excitement provided by the film.
Breakpass Heart is not, however, exempt of defaults, specifically an underwhelming, even if quite spectacular, ending and Jill Ireland's (Hard Times) performance as the main female character doesn’t manage to make an impression and feels a bit out of place for most of the movie. While it does not withstand the comparison with flagships of the Western genre, it is nonetheless a hugely likeable film which will make a durable impression on whoever is ready to board this train with Bronson for the 90-minute murder mystery.
The film is presented in a solid 1080p transfer which respects the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio of the film. The image hasn’t benefited from any proper restoration but it doesn’t denature the vision of the film. There are some scratches regularly appearing throughout the film - nothing disturbing though - and the image overall is of good quality.
On the sound side, the Blu-ray disc features an efficient English LPCM 2.0 audio track which enhances the train exterior scenes and nicely emphasises Goldsmith’s great score. The disc also features optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.
Created by Eureka, it contains only one extra - a new interview with Kim Newman (25 mins, no subtitles), in which the author and critic discusses Breakheart Pass’ place in 1970s cinema (what he refers to as “lean, mean action pictures”), how actors of the time, like Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin or Bronson, could build movies on their name, MacLean’s work, his style, and Tom Gries. Also featured is the original theatrical trailer.
Breakheart Pass is released in the UK by Eureka on 21st May.