A train travels westward hauling a diverse array of passengers into the snowy and dangerous frontier. Onboard are the territory’s governor, Richard Fairchild (Richard Crenna), and his fiancée, Marica (Jill Ireland), accompanied by Reverend Peabody (Bill McKinney), a regiment of soldiers and their dedicated leader, Major Claremont (Ed Lauter). Along for the ride are Marshal Pearce (Ben Johnson) and his captured quarry, John Deakin (Charles Bronson), a notorious murderer. They’re bringing supplies to Fort Humboldt, whose men are desolated by a diphtheria outbreak. Everything is going well. The luxury dining car keeps the important people in full warmth and comfort while the soldiers keep them safe from potential bandits and the native population. Then a passenger ends up dead. And another. And another. It’s up to the survivors to figure out who the murderer is before he or she kills again, and Deakin may be their only chance at getting out alive.
Breakheart Pass is filled with great practical-action gags and a glorious, chaotic third-act climax. Its mystery story isn’t terribly compelling, nor is its eventual convoluted explanation, but it’s all in service of Bronson looking steely and killing the right people. The box art on Kino Lorber’s new release depicts the star hanging off a snowy boxcar over a ravine; he does, in fact, end up in precisely that situation during an excellent train-top fight sequence. The same fight also includes Deakin landing a high-jump kick performed by someone who certainly isn’t Bronson. What does it matter? Movies tell us impossible things to make the world more bearable. In my heart, Charlie Bronson could high-jump kick a man twice his weight while fighting atop a snowy train car, land gracefully and continue his fight. Does that not tighten your chest a little bit?
My love for Breakheart Pass — which I have only seen thanks to Kino Lorber sending me over a copy of their gorgeous Blu-Ray, out November 16 — is compounded by its setting. Winter Westerns are my sweet spot. Be gone with the arid landscapes of southern California and western Spain. Give me mountains, snow and dark desolation. Those luxury boxcars look pretty cozy when the world outside is so inhospitable. It’s a lot more fun to see men fall from giant railway bridges into the snow, too, which happens here a bit more frequently than your usual Western. One of the best scenes features a man falling to his death. The men above look down. One of them shakes his head. “He’s dead,” he says. No shit?
Although the mystery isn’t terribly compelling, it’s hard not to get lost in Breakneck Pass. Bronson may be phoning it in, but it’s in the service of a movie that asks little of him anyway. It’s a winter Western, a train-bound murder-mystery, and a Bronson-kills-the-wicked odyssey all delivered in one ceaselessly paced B-picture.
Kino Lorber’s new release includes trailers for other forthcoming releases by the label, as well as an audio commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson.