Breakheart Pass

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Convoluted but fun action Western

Image of Breakheart Pass

Tom Gries / US / 1975 / 95mins

Available on Blu-ray Mon 21 May 2018

In the 1960’s and 70’s Glasgow-born author Alistair Maclean wrote a series of easy-read action bestsellers. Most of them – Where Eagles Dare, The Guns of Navarone etc – were made into easy-watching, undemanding movies. Breakheart Pass was his stab at a Western.

There’s a tortuously convoluted plot offering up plenty of action, though curiously, not a great deal of suspense. John Deakin, played by eternal tough guy Charles Bronson is a doctor-turned-prisoner-turned-detective, who aims to discover who is knocking off his fellow travellers on a thundering train taking medicine to a military fort stricken with diphtheria.  Jill Ireland (Mrs Bronson at the time) is little more than decoration.

Bad guys are threatening to take over the fort, diphtheria notwithstanding, and the winter weather is turning and the telegraph is down.

All these machinations are window-dressing for some great action set pieces including a scuffle on the roof of the carriage of the moving train, which contains cavalrymen, stolen Winchester rifles and much else besides. There are several vertiginous railway bridges and some great location shooting but the acting, dialogue, characterisation and plotting are a tad wanting. The speeding locomotive in the snow, however, looks great.

Maclean wrote the screenplay. Someone with more experience might have trimmed the excess fat from the book. Even the fine Jerry Goldsmith’s score cannot disguise the sagginess of the direction. Might Breakheart Pass (like the recently rebooted Murder on the Orient Express) be ripe for a remake?  Certainly in the original there is much room for improvement.