Breakheart Pass (PG) | Home Ents Review

Dir. Tom Gries, US, 1975, 96 mins

Cast: Charles Bronson, Richard Crenna, Jill Ireland, Ben Johnson, Ed Lauter, Charles Durning

Review by Colin Dibben

A solid, stolid and slightly stodgy western that’s made special by Lucien Ballard’s nice camera work, the craggy presence of Charles Bronson and a nice collection of supporting character actors, together at last.

There’s a train travelling from Myrtle to Fort Humboldt, carrying urgent medical supplies and an array of passengers, including Deakin (Bronson), an ex-doctor wanted for arson and murder. As the train makes its way through pine forests and snow, the passengers start to die or disappear. Deakin sets out to find out whodunnit and why.

I saw this at the cinema at a young age and my bewilderment persists. This is a film that has lots of plot but somehow it doesn’t feel like it has very much plot at all. In an extra, Kim Newman rightly points out that the plot has a relatively simple structure: one problem is added to another, then another and another. But the production is so laid back and cosy that you don’t feel any tension about the hero’s ability to solve these problems. It’s more like this is just ‘stuff’ that happens to him.

The laidback air extends to gaps in the plot: one moment Deakin is a murderer in manacles, the next he is sitting at the governor’s table sipping fine whiskey. How did that happen?

On the plus side, it’s a laidback film – and what’s not to like about that. It’s always nice to see Bronson creeping around doing stuff silently, like a shaggy panther in a cage.

There are a lot of very familiar character actors in Breakheart Pass and, given the laidback air, you’d think this a fine opportunity to enjoy some craggy faces and whiskey burned voices. But no, the camera is always cutting away from them, which is surprising when the plot plods.

Even as a nine-year-old the look of the film stuck in my head. It ‘looks’ classic – like a lightly varnished painting which allows for clean contrasts between snow white and a range of browns – even if the plot lets it down. It’s only a pity that the film isn’t truly widescreen (although it’s a fine 1:85:1 ratio).

The extra in which the ever-enthusiastic Kim Newman contextualises the film is worth a watch. “Fine for a wet Sunday afternoon” he concludes.

Breakheart Pass is out in a dual format edition on 14 May.

Colin Dibben

Author: Colin Dibben

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