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BREAKHEART PASS (director: Tom Gries; screenwriter: from the novel by Alistair MacLean/Alistair MacLean; cinematographer: Lucien Ballard; editor: Byron ‘Buzz’ Brandt; music: Jerry Goldsmith; cast: Charles Bronson (John Deakin), Ben Johnson (Pearce), Jill Ireland (Marica Scoville), Richard Crenna (Governor Fairchild), Charles Durning (O’Brien), Ed Lauter (Major Claremont), Bill McKinney (Reverend Peabody), David Huddleson (Dr. Molyneux), Roy Jenson (Chris Banion, engineer), Eddie Little Sky (Chief White Hand), Robert Tessier (Levi Calhoun), Rayford Barnes (Sergeant. Bellew), Scott Newman (Rafferty), Archie Moore (Carlos the Chef), Casey Tibbs (Jackson), Read Morgan (Captain Oakland), Robert Rothwell (Lt. Newell), Irv Faling (Colonel Scoville); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Jerry Gershwin; MGM/UA Home Entertainment; 1975)
“A misguided runaway trainbound detective story.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Breakheart Pass tries unsuccessfully to bridge in one film two genres: the Western and the detective story. Tom Gries (“Will Penny”) can’t manage to prevent it from becoming overloaded as a misguided runaway train-bound detective story, taking on the flavor of “The Lady Vanishes,” “Murder on the Orient Express” or “Ten Little Indians” but without distinction. Though not critically well-received, the entertaining film did very well at the box office. It’s based on the novel by Alistair MacLean, who doubles as screenwriter.

It’s filled with star power that was underutilized, an overwritten and muddled plot, trite dialogue, too many characters to cover adequately and in need of a reality check; it relies on its action-filled climax at the snowy Breakheart Pass to bail it out of the hole it dug for itself with too many tedious set pieces setting up the plot. But it had great daredevil stunt work, a tribute to Yakima Canutt’s final assignment as a stunt coordinator.

Sometime in the 1870s John Deakin (Charles Bronson) is posing as a wanted man, but in reality he’s a federal undercover agent with lots of medical knowledge. Deakin gets arrested in a frontier western town by Marshal Pearce (Ben Johnson) in order to get aboard a military train heading to help a diphtheria outbreak at Fort Humboldt. Also on board are a detachment of soldiers led by a major (Ed Lauter), a Utah governor (Richard Crenna), the daughter of the fort’s commander (Jill Ireland, real-life wife of Bronson), and the train’s cook (Archie Moore, former light-heavy weight champion).

As the train speeds along the Rocky Mountains there are a number of murders (two army officers, a preacher, a medical doctor, and a fireman), a wrecked train (killing off the army detachment but for two), the telegraph service is mysteriously down in parts and the discovery that the medical supplies are filled with dynamite and the crates in the storage train car contain some 500 Winchester rifles.

In the end, it’s up to Bronson to save the day and uncover the anti-military conspiracy involving gunrunners and Indians, the meaning for the phony epidemic and the connection between the shady governor, the overreaching governor’s aide O’Brien (Charles Durning), the crooked frontier marshal and the crazed hillbilly fugitive Levi Calhoun (Robert Tessier). It’s all routine thriller stuff, not worth a damn.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”