Breakheart Pass (1975)
Breakheart Pass is a curious hybrid film even by the experimental standards of the seventies. Written by Alistair MacLean, it encompasses both the western and whodunit genres with a twisting tale of cholera epidemics, fugitive gunmen, corrupt politicians and Indian uprisings. Starring Charles Bronson at the peak of his career, this often overlooked film has many virtues. Its production design has an air of authenticity and the plot has more than a hint of Agatha Christie, endearing the film to both the casual viewers and more seasoned action fans.
Breakheart Pass is very much a product of its time. Director Tom Gries, a veteran of many TV series, tackles the plot in the manner of a police procedural drama. The pace is measured and a stark contrast to contemporary film making. The cast is full of talented characters actors such as Ben Johnson, Ed Lauter and Richard Crenna, playing larger than life protagonists. The action scenes are effectively done, as this was the final film for legendary stunt man Yakima Cannutt. Lucien Ballard's cinematography is both striking as well as atmospheric and Jerry Goldsmith rounds off the movie with a lively and memorable score. All things considered Breakheart Pass has a good quality pedigree.
One particular facet of Breakheart Pass that is of note and worth reflecting upon is its abundance of physical effects and stunt work. If this was a contemporary movie, most of these sequences would be realised through the use of CGI. Back in 1975 these sorts of scenes were done for real. This makes the fight on the train roof over the trestle bridge all the more impressive. Two stunt doubles did this for real. Also the train carriage crash is also done without the use of miniatures or photographic effects. The proliferation of computer effects in the last two decades does seem to have diminished the concept of genuine set pieces and cinematic spectacle.
The western movie was in decline by the middle seventies and films such as Breakheart Pass strived to bring a fresh perspective to a tired genre. The film has a few flaws such as the episodic nature of the plot and the clichéd "cavalry to the rescue" ending but overall this is an honest adaptation of a mainstream bestseller. Alistair MacLean was the mainstay of many a Hollywood all-star action movie for over a decade with the likes of The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare. Breakheart Pass showcases why this was the case and all reiterates why Charles Bronson was so good at these minimalist anti-hero roles.