BREAKHEART PASS (1975) – (Frontierado is coming up August 7th and, as always, it’s about the myth of the Old West, not the grinding reality.) Alistair MacLean may be more closely associated with espionage and crime thrillers like When Eight Bells Toll, The Eagle Has Landed and Puppet on a Chain but his lone Western, Breakheart Pass, is a very solid story which transfers MacLean’s usual themes to the American West.
Charles Bronson stars as Deakin, a former man of medicine turned gambler, con-man and gunslinger. Needless to say his wife Jill Ireland is along for the ride, this time playing a woman being wooed by oily Governor Fairchild (Richard Crenna). Ben Johnson portrays Marshal Pearce, Ed Lauter IS Major Claremont and Bill McKinney takes on the role of Reverend Peabody.
Some critics bash this above-average film because they apparently thought Alistair MacLean’s name on the script meant it would be an over-the-top Western Spy actioner along the lines of Robert Conrad’s old Wild Wild West television series crossed with Where Eagles Dare. Instead, Breakheart Pass comes closer to grittiness than slickness and is all the more enjoyable for that.
The opening of the movie misleadingly sets off a viewer’s Disaster Movie alarm bells as our disparate characters all wind up on a train traveling westward through the snowy Rocky Mountains. (Will it be a Western version of Airport?) Governor Fairchild is escorting Marica (Ireland), whom he intends to marry, to Fort Humboldt, where her father is the commanding officer.
Fort Humboldt is suffering from a mysterious disease which is reaching epidemic proportions and the west-bound train is loaded down with medical supplies. Major Claremont and his soldiers are reinforcements to replace the men dropping like flies from the illness. They’re also intended to try to keep up the numbers at the Fort, which is already struggling to contain hostile Native American activity from Chief White Hand (Eddie Little Sky).
Our main character Deakin gets arrested and is being escorted west by Marshall Pearce to face ugly charges: a fire started by Deakin to facilitate one of his jail-breaks got out of control and wound up killing innocent people. This set of circumstances brings harsh treatment on him by many of the cast members, appalling Marica, who feels Deakin is innocent until proven guilty.
SPOILERS: It probably doesn’t need Spoiler protections this many years later but Deakin is really an undercover agent for the U.S. Secret Service. He’s investigating a major conspiracy involving precious metals, illegal gun-running and a deadly alliance between Chief White Hand & outlaw leader Levi Calhoun (Robert Tessier voiced by Paul Frees).
To reveal more would rob first-time viewers of a lot of the fun as deceptions are exposed, seeming bad guys turn out to be good guys and vice versa. Suffice it to say Breakheart Pass is loaded with just about everything a fan of Westerns could want and the film’s budget is large enough to make it look pretty damn good.
The action builds and builds to the proportions of a major battle by movie’s end. I’ll take this Tom Gries-directed film over plenty of other 1970s Bronson flicks with better reputations.
And I have to admit, the Spaghetti Western fan in me gets a kick out of seeing Harmonica (Bronson) and Noon (Crenna) sharing scenes with each other.
P.S. Sally Kirkland shows up as a prostitute early in the movie, if you’re a member of her cult. And Bronson makes his big entrance wearing a long coat of black bear fur, making him look like a Blaxploitation Movie Pimp.
FOR SIX MORE NEGLECTED WESTERN FIGURES CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/2012/06/18/six-neglected-wild-west-figures/
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