Although he’s now known as one of the most recognizable faces of action films, Charles Bronson had a long road to stardom. Starting out as a character actor in Hollywood in the 1950’s and 1960’s, it took a sojourn in Europe – including a breakthrough performance in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) – and the success of Death Wish (1974) to fully cement him as one of the biggest box office draws in the 1970’s; one of his first films following his newfound though long time coming fame was Breakheart Pass. Previously released on Blu-ray by Kino, the label has revisited the film for a new Blu-ray release.
The Production: 4/5
When an outbreak of diphtheria hits the U.S. Army garrison at Fort Humboldt, a train carrying medical supplies is sent through Nevada to reach its final destination. Among those on board include Governor Richard Fairchild (Richard Crenna), his fiancée Marica (Jill Ireland), Army Major Claremont (Ed Lauter) and a platoon of soldiers, U.S. Marshal Pearce (Ben Johnson) and his prisoner John Deakin (Charles Bronson). However, as train winds its way through the Sierra Nevadas, it becomes clear that not is all what it seems, as people – including much of the train’s escort of soldiers – either turn up dead or missing and the supposed shipment of medical supplies isn’t really medicine. All deceptions and true identities come to light at snow covered Breakheart Pass, where a conspiracy is blown apart amidst an exchange of gunfire.
Breakheart Pass is an absolute crackerjack of a film, combining elements of the western and mystery genres to great effect. Adapting from his own novel (which was uncredited), Alistair MacLean shows why he was considered one of top writers of action and adventure with a deft sense of suspense mixed in; his work here can hold its own with his best known foray into screenwriting, Where Eagles Dare (1968). The contributions of cinematographer Lucien Ballard shouldn’t be overlooked either, as he makes great use of the Idaho locations – filling in for the Sierra Nevada Mountains – as well as the cramped interiors of the train for maximum effect. And it all comes to life under the direction of Tom Gries, who milks every last drop of potential out of each situation and characterization in the film for great effect. While it may not be at the top of the lists for best western or suspense film ever made, Breakheart Pass still gets plenty of mileage out its fusion of genres, with quite a few memorable moments along the way.
As the passenger with a secret, Charles Bronson is given one of his best roles of the decade; he previously worked with Tom Gries on Breakout (1975) prior to this film. Among those who also have secrets of their own, Ben Johnson, Richard Crenna and Charles Durning are very solid in their roles as the U.S. Marshal, Nevada Governor and the train’s conductor respectively; Crenna and Durning are playing against type while Johnson was no stranger to playing an easy going heavy. Among those who may be of some help to Deakin, Jill Ireland and Ed Lauter are respectively strong as the fiancée of the governor and the Army major leading the train’s soldier escort; Ireland was Bronson’s leading lady both on screen – no less than 14 films together – and in real life while Lauter is given a chance here to play a heroic supporting character (he would reteam with Bronson 10 years later in Death Wish 3). Notably rounding out the cast here are Bill McKinney as the preacher, David Huddleston (the Big Lebowski himself) as the train’s doctor, Joe Kapp as the train’s steward, Archie Moore as the train’s cook (he also has a memorable fight scene with Bronson atop the train), Robert Tessier as the outlaw Levi Calhoun (dubbed by an uncredited Paul Frees), Eddie Little Sky as Chief White Hand, who’s a major part of the conspiracy, and a brief appearance by Sally Kirkland as a prostitute in the whistle stop town at the beginning of the film.
3D Rating: NA
The film is presented in its original 1:85:1 aspect ratio for this release, taken from a new 2K master. This release does open with the original United Artists/Transamerica logo that preceded the opening credits; film grain, color palette and fine details are all represented faithfully. There’s minimal cases of scratches, dirt, tears or vertical lines present here, which means that this is likely the best the movie will ever look on home video and even surpasses Kino’s previous Blu-ray release.
The film’s original mono soundtrack is presented on a DTS-HD Master Audio track for this release. Dialogue is strong and clear, with the sound mix and Jerry Goldsmith’s rollicking score also given a faithful representation and presentation as well; there’s little to no cases of distortion, crackling, popping or hissing present here. Overall, this is likely the best the movie will ever sound on home video and a slight improvement over the previous Kino Blu-ray.
Special Features: 3/5
Commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell & Nathaniel Thompson – Newly recorded for this release, Berger, Mitchell and Thompson have a spirited discussion on the film, even though it doesn’t delve too deep into the production of the film.
Theatrical Trailer (3:07)
Bonus KLSC Trailers – Farewell, Friend, Rider on the Rain, Cold Sweat, Someone Behind the Door, Chato’s Land, The Valdez Horses (Chino), Mr. Majestyk, From Noon Till Three, The White Buffalo & Cabo Blanco
Despite underperforming at the box office during initial release, Breakheart Pass is still a fun and thrilling film that’s one of Charles Bronson’s best during the 1970’s. Kino has bested their previous barebones Blu-ray release with a terrific HD transfer – with the original UA logo intact for the first time on home video – along with an entertaining commentary track for a special feature. Highly recommended and worth picking up for those who missed to boat on the first Kino Blu-ray.
Mychal has been on the Home Theater Forum’s reviewing staff since 2018, with reviews numbering close to 300. During this time, he has also been working as an assistant manager at The Cotton Patch – his family’s fabric and quilting supplies business in Keizer, Oregon. When not working at reviewing movies or working at the family business, he enjoys exploring the Oregon Coast, playing video games and watching baseball in addition to his expansive collection of movies on DVD, Blu-ray and UHD, totalling over 3,000 movies.
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