Where were you in 1976? If you were alive, then why didn’t you go and see Breakheart Pass? I’m prepared to look at medical notes, letters from your mother, anything you’ve got, but the bottom line is that it’s a real shame that no-one turned out to see this excellent little action-drama because it’s a rattling good yarn.
Breakheart Pass had all the elements of a sure-fire hit. Firstly, it’s from the pen of Alistair MacLean, adapting his own bestselling book. MacLean was a hit machine, from Ice Station Zebra to Where Eagles Dare, and although his brand faltered a little mid 70’s, he was due another smash. Director Tom Gries already had a working relationship with the actor who was frequently America’s number one at the box-office, Charles Bronson. Chuck agreed to play the central character, 18th century secret agent John Deakin for a cool million-dollar salary, plus a romantic role of his wife Jill Ireland, always a feisty presence. Producer Elliot Kastner had produced a number of MacLean projects (When Eight Bells Toll, Fear is the Key) and knew to pack the cast with stars; Richard Crenna, Ben Johnson, Ed Lauter, Sally Kirkland, Charles During, even Santa himself, David Huddlestone. That’s quite an ensemble; throw in an exciting narrative involving a huge train crash, done for real and without models, with the great stunt-director Yakima Canutt (Ben Hur) doing the honors. What could go wrong?
Bronson, however, had a problem; the story doesn’t reveal that Deakin is a secret agent initially; when first introduced, wearing a Doris Day fur coat and sliding into a rough-and-tumble card-game, we think he’s a common criminal. Bronson prevaricated over whether that info drop should be at the beginning, the middle, or the end of the film, and in terms of second-guessing what his audience wanted to see, he got it wrong. Having the central character withhold key information is never a good thing commercially, and Breakheart Pass didn’t please the audience who normally flocked to see Bronson’s straight-up, kick-ass persona.
Seen in 2020, Breakheart Pass is one of the best action films of the 1970’s, with spectacular, non-fake action in and around a moving train, lots of plot twists and clever dialogue, plus an unfamiliar setting; a train supposedly packed with medical supplies, actually full of guns and ammo and bound for criminal hands unless Bronson can throw a spanner in the works. Aside for one shocking shooting early on (cut when I saw this on tv in 1980), it’s not even as violent as a typical Bronson film, and can be recommended to those who find the stars cartoonish prowess resistible. Breakheart Pass is a thinking person’s action movie, and really deserves to be exhumed from the misfires of Bronson’s late 70’s career (St Ives, White Buffalo).