Alistair MacLean? Interest picqued. Charles Bronson? Guaranteed look. Yakima Canutt? Ticket SOLD…
Breakheart Pass starts out ambiguous, continues to only grow in complexity and oblique motivations until finally all is revealed in the end right in time for the big shoot-out. It may sound like a slight, but when the story comes courtesy of thriller-writer extraordinaire Alistair MacLean (he of such subterfuge and intrigue classics like Where Eagles Dare and The Guns of Navarone) and features a solid cast including the likes of Charles Bronson, Ed Lauter, Ben Johnson and Richard Crenna, it should come as no surprise that all parties deliver an engaging, thoroughly satisfying adventure picture with twists and turns aplenty - a classic MacLean story made novel considering the author lays one of his patented espionage plots in 1870’s Nevada.
Bronson plays John Deacon, a wanted man being transported by US Marshall Pearce (Ben Johnson) aboard a train that allows no other passengers other than the small troop of soldiers and the governor of Nevada himself, played by Richard Crenna. The motives of all aboard are dubious at first, but it’s soon revealed that the soldiers are being sent as reinforcements to a fort suffering an outbreak of plague. Of course, this being an Alastair MacLean story, not all is as it appears, and soon enough a string of mysterious murders begin taking place aboard the train - leading all aboard to wonder if they’ll all make to the fort alive.
Coming with solid direction from Tom Gries, Breakheart Pass builds slowly over its ninety-five minute runtime - favoring tension and suspense over nonstop action. The slow build works wonderfully in the film’s favor, as all the subsequent reveals and turns of the plot come as pleasant and entertaining surprises (even though their explanations wind up being more than a little far-fetched in the end). All of it is capably shouldered by Bronson himself, who plays the ambiguity of his character to a tee. He can play the macho tough guy in his sleep, but the real fun here is fun trying to figure out just who’s side Bronson’s character is on throughout. The tension gathers nicely up until the action finally breaks out at the end. Considering said action comes courtesy of Yakima Canutt, it proves to be well worth the wait. The stuntman-turned-second unit director (who perfected the motion picture fight scene to an art) ably stages the shoot-outs and stuntwork, including an impressive fist-fight aboard a moving train and a thrilling cavalry charge at the end.
They don’t make them like Charles Bronson anymore, and so too they don’t make them like Breakheart Pass.