[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]
Right off, one should say that Lucien Ballard is one fine cinematographer, even though he didn’t get a chance to point his camera at anything very interesting in Breakheart Pass, a suspense ripoff dressed up as a quasi-Western. We just get a quick taste of the sort of thing he can do with Peckinpah, establishing a period feeling with a few deft swipes through a ramshackle hamlet as the movie begins, or the way he can light an exterior night scene to make the effect seem just part of the atmosphere. Most of the rest of the time we’re inside this train with most everybody in the cast, waiting as they get killed off one by one, and as it slowly becomes clear that the governor (Rich Crenna) and his henchmen are in cahoots with some toughies at the other end of the line, across Breakheart Pass, and that they’re all conspiring to take over a fort from the army and use it to receive illegal shipments of gold coming in from the fields.
Tom Gries, working with an at least reputable cast, a script by an adventure novel pro, and the aid of Ballard (other Ballard–Gries collaborations include Will Penny and The Hawaiians), just sort of lets the screenplay wend its flaccid way through some nicely photographed but scarcely utilized Western landscapes. Throughout, it’s apparent that Gries has as much trouble creating a plausible sense of space as he does figuring out the human geography of his compositions. Breakheart Pass itself never takes on a very meaningful terrestrial connotation, and you never really do figure out where it, the train, and the fort are in relation to one another beyond the most general notion that one is between the other two. When it comes to planting people in the frame, he’s not much better. Early on, just before the train leaves for Breakheart Pass and John Deakin (Charles Bronson) is slyly incriminating himself so that everyone (us included) will believe that he is a baddie (in fact, he isn’t), a fight erupts in a saloon. It quickly subsides when Ben Johnson walks in, and there are suddenly about four or five main characters strung out around the room with no compositional logic dictating their positions. Johnson stands in the background with nothing to do (Johnson is not at all given to merely standing around to fill space); Ireland and one or two others seem equally at a loss, having no lines, no bearing on the dramatics of the scene. On the train, Bronson must sit with his hands and legs tied against a wall right next to a door, like a package or a piece of furniture that seems vaguely in the way every time someone steps through, and of course he’s in the frame while the governor and his men talk in the foreground, and there’s little he can do but stare at them.
Maybe it all wouldn’t have seemed so terrible if Gries had been more action-oriented in his direction and much less dependent on Alistair MacLean’s turgid script, with all of its clues and vague innuendos of guilt and innocence that crisscross through endless lines of dialogue. As it stands, Gries’ idea of creating visual tension involves making about five cuts from a couple of boxcars full of troopers careening back down the mountain to a trestle where they finally derail and do a slowmotion dance on the slope, crashing to smithereens. Interestingly, there is a flicker of iconographic recognition early in the film that Gries and MacLean ultimately wrestle into what I suppose might roughly be termed the movie’s “twist.” Charles Bronson/John Murray, alias John Deakin, alias something else, first seen silhouetted in sinister shadows against a doorframe while a wanted poster bearing his name gets conveniently passed around the barroom, turns out to be no less than a U.S. Secret Service undercover man while Ben Johnson, the crags of his imperturbable face shot in heroic outline from a low angle, turns unconvincingly corrupt. He and Bronson face off for the final showdown in which Johnson must utter a line like, “So it’s come down to this,” and since, as in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, there seems to be no other way to settle this thing, must play out his hand and go down shootin’.
Direction: Tom Gries. Screenplay: Alistair Maclean. Cinematography: Lucien Ballard. Editing: Byron “Buzz” Brent. Music: Jerry Goldsmith. Production: Jerry Gershwin.
The players: Ben Johnson, Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland, Richard Crenna, Charles Durning, Ed Lauter, Bill McKinney.
© 1976 Rick Hermann