Cult Movie: Alistair MacLean's Western Breakheart Pass a highly entertaining romp

Charles Bronson in Breakheart Pass
Ralph McLean

THE cult credentials of Breakheart Pass are impressive. A gun-slinging Western and a train-travelling murder mystery rolled into one, it's got a 1970s cast and credit list to die for.

There's Charles 'Deathwish' Bronson in the lead role of John Deakin, a mysterious prisoner in transit who must uncover the secret behind a series of brutal murders on board a train thundering through the Rocky Mountains. There's supporting roles for Ben Johnson (The Last Picture Show) and Richard Kenna (Rambo First Blood) and a blood-pumping score from the great Jerry Goldsmith.

The film, freshly released on Blu-ray by Eureka Video, is also notable for one other thing. It's based on a novel by Alistair MacLean. Given that MacLean penned the likes of Where Eagles Dare and The Guns Of Navarone, that's perhaps a pretty standard credit for the era. What makes Breakheart Pass stand out though is the fact that it's the only time the author tackled a full-blown Western with his work.

He made a fine job of it as well, with the final product winding up feeling like a kind of classic Western blended with something like Sidney Lumet's Murder On The Orient Express. On paper a 'who done it' mixed up with a Stetson-wearing murder mystery should be a total mess but in reality it works rather well. It's fast paced and great fun for frittering away a wet weekend afternoon.

Bronson is great as the moody prisoner bound for Fort Humboldt on the train. As that journey to the jail begins so does a series of mysterious on-board murders. As a state official named O'Brien (Charles Durning) and Governor Richard Fairchild (Richard Crenna) – who is looking after the daughter of the fort's commander (Jill Ireland) – bicker about how to deal with this spate of bloody crimes Bronson's Deakin takes it upon himself to uncover the murderer in his own inimitable way.

Director Tom Gries delivers a film that is full of gaping plot holes and unlikely coincidences but it never fails to entertain. There are plot twists galore along the way and like all the best 70s action films it's brash and macho and unrelentingly brutal. It's also low on anything approaching a quality female performance but judged against other similarly tooled efforts from the same era it stands up very well.

The fairly lawless era of frontier boom in which the film is set adds to the atmosphere and there's much to enjoy as Bronson does his usual deadpan thing as he cracks open skulls and unearths the secrets behind the ongoing murders.

It's surprisingly violent and bloody at times as well and Gries delivers the action sequences with an easygoing class that suggests he knows all the right action film buttons to press. It'll never make it into the ranks of a full blown 70s action film classic but it's a rip roaring adventure and a great story chopped into a perfectly acceptable hour and a half of escapist fun.

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