A Hollywood Western released at the end of 1975 failed to meaningfully connect with American audiences despite the fact it had a few good things going for it – including an enjoyable performance by its leading man. Putting aside its initial mediocre box office run, part time revisionist Mark Fraser examines some of the reasons why this film deserved a better hearing.
By the mid-1970s Charles Bronson was one of the highest paid stars in the US, demanding at least $1 million per movie*.
While this sum may seem low by today’s standards, in those days it was big money, with the actor’s salary being on par with the likes of Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Steve McQueen.
One of the odd things about this, though, is that none of the films he made around this time were exactly big cash spinners – particularly for the domestic market.
Although Newman and McQueen used their star power to pull in crowds for John Guillermin’s multi-million dollar The Towering Inferno (1974) – which made $139.7 million** at the box office – and Redford was drawing on his good looks to give titles such as Sydney Pollack’s 3 Days of the Condor (1975) and Alan J Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976) some series returns (they made $41 million and $70.6 million respectively), Bronson appeared in a number of more low key efforts, including Tom Gries’ 1975 Western Breakheart Pass.
Putting this in context, one of the key reasons Bronson’s asking fee had climbed to such giddy heights was the fact his 1974 movie Death Wish (which was directed by Michael Winner) hit the big time amongst American cinemagoers, raking in an impressive $22 million against a $3 million budget upon its release.
The other was that while he still hadn’t truly conquered the US market when the early 1970s had set in – a period which saw him making action films like 1972’s The Mechanic and The Stone Killer the following year (both were also directed by Winner) – he had been a huge screen name in Europe since the late 1960s. Furthermore, he was enjoying considerable box office success in Asia and the Middle East.
Indeed, according to some sources, Bronson was, on a global scale, one of the world’s biggest stars. Under these circumstances, if anyone deserved a pay rise it was “Le Sacre Monstre” (or sacred monster, as the French nicknamed him).
Yet once his bill reached the $1 million threshold, things post Death Wish didn’t really change for the star box office-wise – at least not on the home front.
For instance, his 1975 films – the Gries-directed Breakout, Walter Hill’s Hard Times and Breakheart Pass – only returned $16 million, $4 million and a more paltry $2.13 million*** domestically, arguably proving that US audiences were still not willing to fully embrace this leading man or the roles he chose to play.
Sadly, it eventually took a string of financially hit-and-miss (and mostly awful) Reagan-era vigilante movies made during the 1980s – starting with the despicable Death Wish sequel in 1982 (again directed by Winner) – to cement Bronson’s star in the American market, pushing some of his more interesting titles of the 1970s into a cinematic backlot where only true fans of the man or the curious now bother to venture.
Breakheart Pass, while neither the best nor the worst of this collection, is one such work.
Handsomely shot by veteran western cinematographer Lucien Ballard (who also filmed The Wild Bunch for Sam Peckinpah back in 1969 and, coincidently, photographed three other 1970s Bronson vehicles – Breakout, Frank Gilroy’s From Noon Till Three and J Lee Thompson’s St Ives [both 1976]) using what appear to be authentic sets and backdrops, the movie is essentially a detective story where a good deal of the drama takes place on a military train that is slowly shunting its way through some gloriously mountainous and predominantly snowy terrains towards an ambush (at the titular pass) involving a bunch of murderous gun thieves and opportunistic Indians.
Bronson plays John Deakin, who is introduced at the beginning of the story as a wanted arsonist and murderer, but is later revealed to be a federal secret service agent on the trail of a stolen cache of armaments. Posing as an outlaw, he is arrested by US Marshal Pearce (Ben Johnson) at the small rail outpost of Myrtle after being caught cheating in a card game. As it just so happens, a train transporting two carriages of replacement troops and some medical supplies – along with the dapper Nevada Governor Richard Fairchild (Richard Crenna) and his fiancée Marcia (Jill Ireland) – is passing through on its way to the isolated army post of Fort Humboldt, where a diphtheria epidemic has reportedly broken out.
The lawman manages to talk his way on board, bringing his enigmatic prisoner with him. Things begin to go askew, however, when people start disappearing or getting murdered. It’s at this point the astute viewer will realise that some of the passengers – including businessman O’Brien (Charles Durning), Major Claremont (Ed Lauter) and the Reverend Peabody (Bill McKinney, whose screen freight from John Boorman’s 1972 movie Deliverance makes this one weird piece of casting, even if he does turn out to be a decoy) – may not be who they seem, making the unravelling of this low rent mystery just that little bit more tantalising.
In relation to this, one of the problems with the script – which was adapted by the late Alistair MacLean from his own short novel – is the fact it’s pretty easy to figure out who the baddies are fairly quickly, meaning the only real payback for the audience (aside from watching an early million dollar Bronson performance) is the big battle scene at the end, a conflict so tidy that it not only literally has the cavalry save the day, but concludes with the feeblest of Mexican stand offs as the good guys consolidate their inevitable win.
Having said that, the movie does boast a couple of truly exciting moments, the first being when the troop cars and caboose are disconnected from the rest of the train and hurtle back down the mountain, sending all of the occupants (whose bodies are conspicuously absent at the point of impact) to a spectacular death as the rolling stock derails and soars out into a ravine.
Meanwhile the second, which occurs later in the narrative, sees Deakin fighting Carlos the cook (Archie Moore) on top of the moving (and snow covered) train as it travels across one of the many enormous timber bridges scattered along the route. Choreographed by legendary Hollywood second unit director and stunt co-ordinator Yakima Canutt, it is a genuinely hairy ordeal as the two men, at one point, find themselves dangling from the side of a carriage as the ground beneath them vanishes into a steep gorge.
As usual Bronson is as cool as a cucumber; in fact nothing seems to bother the well-dressed Deakin – especially during the climactic battle as he scurries around in the snow wearing his black suit and riding boots planting sticks of dynamite, dodging bullets and, in a moment of foolhardy resolve, making a heroic horseback dash through the thick of battle to blow up a rail car.
Looking back, it’s difficult to ascertain why Breakheart Pass didn’t have the same audience appeal as Breakout (and, to a lesser extent, Hard Times), particularly as – in some ways – they are kind of similar works despite being in different genres.
In all three films Bronson fundamentally plays a good guy – tough as nails, but resourceful and principled – who finds himself in some very challenging (not to mention life-threatening) situations. As a result, he is genuinely fun to watch.
They also star Ireland, his real-life wife who, in the pair of Gries films at least, is reunited with a loved one thanks to the heroic efforts of this stoic protagonist. While kind of corny, it does give the movies a touch of romance – even if it never moves beyond a minor dose of unrequited love.
Additionally, they each have interesting supporting casts. This is particularly true of Breakheart Pass, where the calibre of people like Johnson, Lauter, Durning and Crenna make it feel like a legitimate ensemble Western.
Finally, as mentioned above, it is a truly attractive piece of work – from Ballard’s lush images to the set design (by Darrell Silvera), costumes (Thomas Dawson with Paula Lynn Kaatz) and art direction (Johannes Larson). If anything, this one impressive-looking period piece.
So, with all this going for it, one has to ask: Why did Breakheart Pass fail to impress American film goers back in early 1976?
Although it’s difficult to say with any degree of certainty, perhaps one reason was the domestic market really didn’t want to see Bronson appearing in Westerns; rather, it preferred to watch him in contemporary violent actioners. Momentarily ignoring From Noon Till Three, which came out later that year and was quite successful (even the critics at this point had to acknowledge his talents), the actor only donned a cowboy suit one more time – in Thompson’s The White Buffalo in 1977 (plus he played a rugged 1930s Yukon mountain man in Peter Hunt’s 1981 frontier saga Death Hunt) – before finding his niche in the urban angst of Reagan’s America.
Besides, at the time US audiences had Clint Eastwood to feed their Western diets. In this regard, it would seem despite playing a key role in one of the greatest Westerns ever made (Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West in 1968), “Harmonica” was ultimately no match for the “Man with No Name”.
Or, to put it another way, the genre simply wasn’t big enough for the both of them.
*All of the figures provided in this review are in US dollars.
**The box office numbers were sourced from Wikipedia.
***This was against a $6 million budget. Interestingly, the website UMR (Ultimate Movie Rankings) points out that $2.3 million in 1975 equates to $28.2 million today, which admittedly sounds a little more respectable.
Breakheart Pass was released on Blu-ray by Eureka on May 21 in the UK.
Words by Mark Fraser
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