Breakheart Pass: Murder on the Western Express

A murder mystery set aboard a train cruising through snow-covered mountains? Add Charles Bronson and an Old West setting and you’ve got Breakheart Pass. As discussed previously at this blog, I’m a big fan of mixed genres and, in particular, the Western mystery (see Five Card Stud). This 1975 adaptation of Alastair MacLean’s 1974 novel proved to be one of Charles Bronson’s better 1970s films and has aged surprisingly well.

Bronson plays John Deakin, a minor outlaw who’s arrested by a federal marshal (Ben Johnson) after cheating at cards in a tiny mining town. The marshal plans to transport Deakin to Fort Humboldt aboard a military train carrying a physician and medical supplies to the diphtheria-infected post. Odd things start happening before the train even departs. Two officers, tasked with decoding a message for the governor (Richard Crenna), disappear without a trace.

Once the train heads toward the snowy peaks, the plot thickens when the physician turns up dead. Deakin, a former lecturer on medicine, recognizes foul play when he sees it: “It’s hard to believe, Major, we have a killer aboard.” The audience also learns that there is no diphtheria at Fort Humboldt. Instead, a notorious outlaw has taken over the military post and plans to link up with a renegade band of Paiute Indians and attack the train.

Breakheart Pass is one of those films that doesn’t give you time to process the narrative. That’s a good thing, because the plot–once it’s fully unveiled–doesn’t withstand close scrutiny. Deakin’s presence aboard the train ultimately doesn’t make any sense and the same applies to the governor’s fiancee portrayed by Jill Ireland (Mrs. Bronson). Additionally, those viewers familiar with Alastair MacLean’s earlier works, particularly Ice Station Zebra and Where Eagles Dare, will recognize some of the author’s recycled plot twists.

Nothing of that matters, though, as Bronson’s Deakin works to expose the killer, clashes with Archie Moore atop the speeding train, and participates in a wild climatic shoot-out. Hercule Poirot had a much easier time aboard the Orient Express!

Bronson is well cast as the sardonic hero. It’s a less violent variation of the kind of roles that made him an international star in the early 1970s. The supporting cast is peppered by veteran character actors like Crenna, Johnson, Charles Durning, David Huddleston, and Ed Lauter. Look quick and you might spot future Oscar nominee Sally Kirkland and former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Joe Kapp.

One of my favorite stories about Breakheart Pass is from Roger Ebert‘s book Awake in the Dark. He describes the famous Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s visit to the film’s set:

BERGMAN (to BRONSON): Please explain to me what you’re doing.

BRONSON: Well, this is a scene where I get shot. So I’m wearing these squibs with fake blood under my shirt, and–but you know all this stuff. You’re a director.

BERGMAN: No, no. Please continue. This is all new to me.

BRONSON: You mean you don’t use guns in your pictures?

Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café . He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!

 

  • jpp452

    The railroading aspect of the movie is patently preposterous. GWR 75, the locomotive, looked great, though. Must have been the soft focus.

    • Butch Knouse

      If there’s a movie where they got the railroading right, I haven’t seen it.

      • jpp452

        Very true, Butch. I give THE TRAIN kudos as being the closest to it that I’ve seen. Also worth watching on its own merits. But, yes, on closer inspection it has its doubtful moments.