By Steve Vivona
Before he wasted his career with innumerable sequels to "Death Wish," Charles Bronson made a number of serious, well-executed action-oriented films. "Breakheart Pass" is perhaps the best of them. Filmed one year after the first "Death Wish" this film represents Bronson in peak form as a secret service agent determined to expose an arms smuggling ring.
Bronson is John Deakin, a supposed thief and swindler who manages to get himself arrested by U.S. Marshal Nathan Pearce played by Western great Ben Johnson. Pearce and Deakin board a train carrying much needed medical supplies and additionbal personnel to Fort Humboldt, an outpost that has been stricken by diptheria.
Also aboard the train are the territory governor (Richard Crenna), the daughter of Humboldt's commander (Jill Ireland), the commander of the replacement forces, a doctor (David Huddleston), a preacher and a businessman (Charles Durning). It quickly becomes apparent that all is not as it seems.
Several passengers on the train end up missing or dead and Deakin becomes a convenient suspect because of his criminal background. However it is obvious that outside forces are at work. In reality there is no plague at Humboldt. A cadre of Indians and criminals have overtaken the fort and are awaiting a shipment of smuggled guns that are aboard the train.
The question remains that which passengers on the train are part of the smuggling ring. Deakin quickly becomes a marked man for these unseen forces and he escapes a number of deathtraps set for him, but time will run out when the train reaches Breakheart Pass!
This is without question one of Bronson's finest efforts. Its a perfect blend of action and suspense with a literate story and a bona fide mystery. In the eighties Bronson signed on for innumerable cheapies that exploited his "Death Wish" persona (whether they were actual sequels or not) and ruined his credibility as an actor.
"Breakheart Pass" benefits from the presence of seasoned veterans like Charles Durning, Richard Crenna and Ben Johnson. Bronson's real-life wife Jill Ireland plays the films one true innocent caught up in a web of lies (Ireland died of cancer in 1990). The film is based on a novel by Alistair MacLean ("Ice Station Zebra"), one of the preeminent suspense authors of his day.
Not only does the film have a healthy dose of action (supervised by stunt master Yakima Canutt) it injects real suspense that leaves the viewer guessing who is behind the whole affair. We know Bronson is the hero of the piece but almost anyone else in the cast could be behind it.
MGM has served up a pleasing DVD presentation for "Breakheart Pass." The transfer is strong and sharp. The original print is somewhat grainy but that is to be expected for a film nearly a quarter-century old. Colors are strong and there are no signs of artifacting or pixelation. A theatrical trailer has also been included. The 70s saw the end of the Western for almost 20 years and this film is a terrific example of what was best about the genre.