EDITOR’S NOTE: Breakheart Pass first was on the site on November 11, 2021. You can get the blu ray from Kino Lorber. It has a brand new 2K master, new audio commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson, and reversible cover art.
Based on the book Breakheart Pass by Alistair MacLean, this movie begins with a remote settlement in Eureka, California suffering from a diphtheria epidemic. An express train is dispatched toward the fort, filled with reinforcements and much-needed medical supplies. There are also some important civilians on board, like Nevada Governor Richard Fairchild (Richard Crenna) and his fiancée Marica (Jill Ireland), the daughter of Fort Humboldt’s commander.
Then, the train stops to let on United States Marshal Pearce (Ben Johnson) and his prisoner, John Deakin (Charles Bronson), a notorious outlaw with a price on his head.
The truth is that Deakin is really a Secret Service agent and that anyone who seemed on the side of the law is really using the epidemic as an excuse to send weapons to Native Americans to use against their fellow Americans. Anyone who isn’t part of the conspiracy is being killed one by one.
Beyond boasting other cast members like Sally Kirkland, Charles Durning and Ed Lauter. there’s ultra-heavy bad guy Robert Tessier and an insane fight on a train car in the snow that looks like one of the most dangerous scenes I’ve ever seen filmed. It was performed by stuntmen Howard Curtis (who was doubling Bronson) and Tony Brubaker (who was Archie Moore’s stand-in). It’s the last stunt directed by Yakima Canutt, who directed the chariot race in Ben-Hur and performed the stagecoach drop in Stagecoach that inspired the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones goes under the German truck. He also taught John Wayne how to fall off a horse, as well as inspired how the Duke acted on screen. The drawling, hesitant speech and the hip-rolling walk that made Wayne famous were all how Canutt actually behaved in real life. Along the way, Cannutt got hurt so many times that his injuries seem hyperbole: multiple broken ribs, breaking both legs at the ankles and even having his intestines split in half while doubling for Clark Gable in Boom Town.
In spite of all of those injuries, he lived to be ninety.
Directed by Tom Gries (The Rat Patrol TV series, Earth II), this film has another astounding practical effect. Those aren’t model train cars getting destroyed. They’re full-sized cars bought just to be run into each other.