While a Yankee army train stops to restock its water supply, John Deakin (Charles Bronson) is caught cheating at cards at a nearby saloon. No sooner than he’s arrested and packed on to the train along with a state governor, his daughter and a Marshal, passengers start meeting their untimely ends at the hands of a mysterious killer.
1975, the year of Breakheart Pass’ release, was a watershed moment in American film making. Both the old Hollywood studio system and the independent cinema of the 1970s would both give way to the New Hollywood, defined by the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. The western had already seen the decline in traditional films like The Searchers, and a reinvention through the hyper-stylised European Spaghetti Westerns and the gritty revisionist work of Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood.
Amongst such vibrant company, Breakheart Pass is an oddly inert affair, lacking the operatic violence of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, the mean realism of The Outlaw Josey Wales, or the classic romance of John Ford. It’s significant that Breakheart Pass was released in the same year as Jaws, a film regularly cited as the first modern blockbuster. Where Jaws represents the future of mainstream Hollywood, Breakheart Pass bears is a film roundly out of time, ignoring the prevailing winds of cinema while offering a pale imitation of the past.
Breakheart Pass is not without appeal. Bronson is as watchable as ever, essentially playing a matinee-friendly version of his harder-bitten characters. And the mystery surrounding his wanted man provides much-needed intrigue. There are some surprising moments of brutality, too. A tracking shot of an unfortunate fireman, thrown from the train as it passes over a wooden bridge is satisfyingly nasty as he’s dashed on the wooden struts. The setting, too, is inherently cinematic: there’s something about shots of steam trains clacketing their way through the unspoilt American west that is ineffably romantic and exciting, helped in no small part by Jerry Goldsmith’s score.
Nevertheless, a narrative that should be driven by urgency feels strangely inert. At only 94 minutes in length, the film’s second act drags badly, with virtually none of the characters exhibiting the suspicion and paranoia that being stuck on a train with an unseen killer might inspire. This narrative inertia translates into boring and uninspired visuals, too. Despite the aforementioned external train shots, the film’s functional cinematography and editing feels less than cinematic. Furthermore, the convoluted conspiracy behind the killings should be fertile ground for intrigue, but instead comes of as half-baked and ultimately unsatisfying.
Breakheart Pass is not a bad film, but it’s not a particularly good one, either. Even Kim Newman, on Eureka’s supplementary interview, can’t bring himself to describe it as more than an ‘admirable star vehicle’ for Bronson. The film’s most enduring legacy is an example of cinema that had already passed into history by the time it was released. If nothing else, it’s a fitting metaphor for the old west itself.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell