The best kind of Western is one that is full of nuance, that gently deconstructs the myths of the unsettled American Wild West examining themes such as culture versus nature, the individualist versus the community, or civilisation versus the wilderness. It lays out the gunfighter, the outlaw, the cowboy, or whatever other example it chooses to represent the masculine ideal, and pits its status against modernity and democracy. They contain a social commentary on both contemporary and traditional values. They have a point.
In Shane, we see Alan Ladd as a relic of a nearly bygone era descend from the forests, arrive at civilisation to fix its problems one last time as only a man of the West could do, before ascending off into paradise, dead and used up. In Stagecoach, we see John Wayne’s individualist The Ringo Kid literally brought in from the wilderness to save a carriage of supposedly civilised folk from the savage world around it. In The Gunfighter, Gregory Peck desperately tries to shake his unwanted reputation as a killer and gunslinger that follows him around like a coffin, before passing the mantle onto a dumb kid still in awe of the myth of the Wild West and ignorant of the reality.
The films of the golden age of Westerns, from the 1940s through to the 1960s, were nuanced, subtle, and meaningful. And then a funny thing happened. Spaghetti Westerns all but destroyed the notion of these hokey, stoical and sometimes even cheesy Westerns taking themselves too seriously. By the time the Hays code was officially canned, America had entered the era of blockbuster cinema. Before Star Wars happened, before Jaws happened, before even the 1970s happened, Alistair MacLean happened.
Though probably not all that familiar a name to us these days, Alistair MacLean was a Scottish novelist and screenwriter who penned action thrillers in a time where there was no form for such movies in theatres. Often thought of as the first real action film, The Guns of Navarone, was adapted from a MacLean novel in 1961. An even bigger hit followed before the decade was through as Clint Eastwood – often synonymous with the end of the golden era of Westerns – and Richard Burton shot up Nazis in MGM’s explosive WWII actioner Where Eagles Dare. Nuance, subtlety and underlying deeper meaning were scant in MacLean’s movies, but he virtually birthed a new genre of kick-ass action heroes.
Charles Bronson, the star of Breakheart Pass, would himself be added to MacLean’s roster of action heroes in this 1975 Western murder-mystery set aboard a locomotive racing to the Rocky Mountains as passengers are killed one-by-one by an unknown murderer. As far as Westerns go, this one is about as subtle as a brick. Conventions of the frontier films we all know and love are left at the station as Breakheart Pass hurls itself 100mph towards its destructive destination. The Murder on the Orient Express element of the plot appears at first as if it will dominate, but within the opening half an hour of this joy ride, we’ve had fisticuffs, brawls and batterings to subdue any notion that this is a rip-off of the well-known story. Within another half an hour, there have been secret service revelations, blazing gun battles and a knife fight on the top of a speeding train flying over a rickety bridge that would make Bond blush and Neeson wince.
The fact that Breakheart Pass is even set during the frontier period is purely cosmetic. It provides a beautiful old steam engine powering its way through the open American landscape, it gives us six-gun shooters and TNT, and a deal between backstabbing Marshalls and downright untrustworthy “injuns”. It also gives us an opportunity to see Charles Bronson do what Charles Bronson does best. He kicks arse, he puts uppity pompous men in their place, and saves the day using his fists, wile and goddamn manly man blokey blokeness. This wasn’t Bronson’s first rodeo, of course, as (amongst many others) The Magnificent Seven proved just how rugged he was, and one year earlier he was capping crims in Michael Winner’s b-movie Death Wish.
MacLean and veteran director Tom Gries certainly knew how to get the best out of their star man. Close-up camera shots inside the tightly packed train cabins made Bronson look massive amongst his co-performers such as Ben Johnson (The Last Picture Show), Bronson’s real-life wife Jill Ireland (also in the aforementioned Shane), and Richard Crenna, who would later become more well known as Rambo’s former commander in the First Blood movies. While the performances aren’t particularly impressive, the characters are functional and no great displeasure to be around. Pacing is a slight concern as the engine driving this movie takes a moment to warm up before it hits breakneck speed, but Gries and his team deliver in the action stakes and especially so with the iconic scene on top of the train, which still looks as incredible and impressive today as it did originally.
Aesthetically, the film will never look better than it does on Eureka Entertainment’s dual format re-release, which is available for the first time on Blu-ray in the UK from today. The extras are limited to a 30 minute interview with British critic Kim Newman and some optional SDH subtitles. Although the main feature isn’t necessarily a great example of its genre or a classic from the acclaimed screenwriter, it is nevertheless an enjoyable 95 minutes of escalating thrills and utter nonsense.
Check out the trailer below and let us know what you think in the comments section: