California. The 1870s. Sheriff Pearce (Ben Johnson) boards a train with his prisoner, an alleged outlaw named John Deakin (Charles Bronson). The train is mostly full of soldiers, under the command of Major Claremont (Ed Lauter), who are on their way to Fort Humboldt. The fort has suffered a diphtheria epidemic and the soldiers are supposedly transporting medical supplies.
However, it’s not just soldiers on the train. There’s also Gov. Fairchild (Richard Crenna) of Nevada, his fiancée (Jill Ireland), the Reverend Peabody (Bill McKinney), and a conductor named O’Brien (Charles Durning). As the train continues on its journey, it becomes obvious that all is not as it seems. People start to disappear. A man is thrown from the train. Two cars full of soldiers are separated from the train and plunge over a cliff. There is also more to Deakin than anyone first realized and soon, he is the only person who can bring the murderers to justice.
In both real life and the movies, Charles Bronson was the epitome of a tough guy, so it’s always interesting to see him playing a more cerebral character than usual. There are some exciting and surprisingly brutal action scenes, including a scene where Bronson fights a cook (played by former professional boxer Archie Moore) on top of the speeding train, but Breakheart Pass is more of a murder mystery than a typical action film. If Louis L’Amour and Agatha Christie had collaborated on a story, the end result would be much like Breakheart Pass. Bronson spends as much time investigating as he does swinging his fists or shooting a gun. It’s not a typical Bronson role but he does a good job, showing that he could think as convincingly as he could kill. Acting opposite some of the best character actors around in the 70s, Bronson more than holds his own.
Apparently, back in 1975, audiences were not interesting in watching Bronson think so Breakheart Pass was a disappointment at the box office and it is still not as well known as Bronson’s other films. However, even if you’re not already a fan of the great Bronson, Breakheart Pass is worth discovering.