As far as I know, Breakheart Pass was the only western story written by the great Alistair McClean but what a riveting tale it is. His screenplay version of the story for the movie does not disappoint as it matches the book for non-stop action and intrigue.
Most of the action takes place on a train from the past. There are some magical scenes as the steam engine drags the train up gradients and across deep snow covered ravines. I was brought up in the age of steam and it’s such a shame that youngsters now can only experience the soulless drab electric trains of today.
The train is meant to be on a mercy mission to Fort Humboldt, where a diphtheria outbreak has been reported, carrying medical supplies, coffins for the deceased, and replacement soldiers. As with all the author’s works things are not often what they seem to be. So it is worth remembering this when the character John Deakin arrives on the scene in Myrtle, a small town where the train has made a comfort stop. Deakin’s on the wanted list for a pot puree of hideous crimes but being played by the weather beaten Charles Bronson it doesn’t take long to realise that he’s a sheep in wolf’s clothing. It was challenging role for Bronson as he has lot of dialogue but he delivers it like a trooper. Even better, one doesn’t need the sub-titles on to understand what he’s saying.
Deakin is taken into custody by the shifty Sheriff Nathan Pearce who uses the arrest as his ticket to ride on the train. As a prerequisite for most westerns is a character with a cowpoke drawl it’s no surprise to find Ben Johnson in the role of Sheriff Pearce. The only other civilians on board besides the train crew are heavily indebted Governor Fairchild and his fiancé Marica whose father is the commandant at the fort. In the book she was the Governor’s niece, which made better sense, as she seems much too young to be his fiancé. However it did provide a bit more spice to the tension that grows between the Governor and Deakin as her affections drift from one to the other. Bronson’s wife Jill Ireland plays the innocent looking Marisa but in their scenes together you would never know they were married. Also aboard is a doctor to treat the sick when they reach the fort and a preacher for when medication fails.
In charge of the soldiers is Major Claremont who seems to have been demoted since the book was written. Claremont is married to his uniform and as he’s a somewhat authoritative figure it’s a typical role for the steady Ed Lauter. There’s a problem for Claremont even before the train departs from Myrtle, as his two senior officers disappear after being sent to decode an intercepted wire to the Governor received from the fort. Once on the move the numbers are whittled down further when the doctor is found murdered by his own needle, the preacher disappears only to be found later at rest in one of the coffins, and the train driver’s fireman mysteriously falls off into a deep ravine with the help of a heavy wrench.
Communication with the fort is maintained by means of a portable telegraph. At the other end of the line however is dastardly outlaw Levi Calhoun who, with his gang and a tribe of Paiute Indians, has captured the fort imprisoning all the soldiers there including Marica’s father the Commandant. Calhoun’s in cahoots with the bent Governor and Sheriff and; with the fireman disposed of; the rest of the train crew. Never in the history of Westerns have so many of the characters been villains. Their plan is to arm the Paiutes with repeating rifles that are hidden in the coffins in return for gold. No one had reckoned on Deakin a devious Government agent who purloins the portable telegraph and sends false messages to Calhoun.
One of the more spectacular sequences in the movie is the demise of the replacement troops who are travelling steerage in the end wagon. While on a gradient the brakeman uncouples their wagon and it slowly rolls backwards as the engine drags the rest of the train up an incline. The loose wagon picks up speed as it travels unrestricted downhill. The men inside are slow to realise something is amiss and by the time they wake up to the danger it’s too late. Having reached the speed of a bullet train the wagon approaches a tight corner but unlike a roller coaster it has no chance of staying on the track. The soldiers’ eyes reveal horror as their fate is sealed and the wagon plummets down a steep ravine. All that is left is matchwood.
There are the usual rooftop fights for Deakin to survive, which he does by the skin of his teeth. When the villains catch on to Deakin’s meddling he takes refuge in the engine joined by Marica and Major Claremont. Having dealt with the driver; yet another of the villains; he stops the train at Breakheart Pass and blows up the track. Calhoun with his gang and Indian buddies have ridden out to meet the train after receiving a false wire reporting failure to kill off the replacement troopers. As they set about repairing the track, Claremont rides to the fort to release the sparsely guarded imprisoned garrison. Deakin undertakes virtually all the difficult hero tasks unlike the novel in which Major Claremont has his share. At least the galloping Major was allowed to cut down the cowardly Governor in the final showdown cavalry charge. The last villain to meet a sticky end is Sheriff Pearce who faces Deakin in the obligatory one-on-one gunfight.
A very entertaining movie and certainly one of Bronson’s best even though he never gets to kiss his wife in any scene. I particularly enjoyed the performance of Richard Crenna as the corrupt manipulative Governor Fairchild who had turned to crime to pay off his debts. Did he deserve a cutlass style execution? Most certainly yes! There is however no doubt who stands head and shoulders above the rest. It’s none other than the train engine that chugs along relentlessly throughout the movie and whose trauma can only be measured by the colour and amount of smoke rising out of its stack.