Thursday, December 4, 2014

Breakheart Pass (1975)

An Army train secretly carrying diphtheria medication, a doctor (David Huddleston) and replacement soldiers led by Major Claremont (Ed Lauter) for Fort Humboldt, has to cross the Rocky Mountains. The train also carries US senator Fairchild (Richard Crenna) who accompanies his fiancée Marica (Jill Ireland) to her father, the highest officer of the Fort. Apart from the Doctor and the senator, nobody else on board knows about the diphtheria situation, and that will only change when the train will have reached the point of no return.

On the last stop before that point is reached, the train rather unwillingly picks up Marshal Pearce (Ben Johnson) who has just rather accidentally caught former doctor, con artist and murderer John Deakin (Charles Bronson). Ironically, Deakin will turn out to be the ideal detective when a series of curious accidents and murders begins to hinder the train’s journey.

Though Tom Gries’s (who was also responsible for the fantastic Will Penny) direction seems a bit perfunctory and TV movie like from time to time, lacking a bit of edge and sometimes even the sense for making the best out of some of the film’s set pieces, Breakheart Pass still turns out to be an excellent film. The script by Alistair MacLean based on his own novel provides a surprisingly clever, and often cleverly surprising mixture of the mystery and the Western genres, both working well together not just because of the relative (there are of course other genres mixtures of its type) novelty of the mix but because MacLean (and perhaps Gries) actually seems to have a very clear idea which parts of the Western genre and which of the mystery film mix well and which don’t.

Some of the film’s better red herrings are more effective if the audience involved has some working knowledge of the Western genre and its clichés and habits because they are at times running against exactly these expectations. Not with a grand gesture of deconstruction or from a position of ironic knowingness, as much as from the more practical kind of view the sort of commercial writer MacLean was for better (in this case) or for worse (in many other cases) comes to reach with experience in his craft, using the expectations of an audience against it not to necessarily to make it think about genre structures and what they might mean but to provide it with the joy of surprise. One might complain that this approach lacks a certain depth, but then one should by all rights be too entertained by the little games MacLean is playing here to care.

I certainly found myself too entertained to complain. Watching Breakheart Pass, I also found myself appreciating many of the little things the film does right: how it introduces the Bronson character as a man focusing on using his brain instead of using his brawn to make the latter scenes when Gries’s depiction of the action becomes more exciting and our hero suddenly does use his brawn a bit surprising and certainly more exciting, while still emphasising the character’s intelligence before his propensity for physical violence; the way Bronson makes tiny little shifts to his at this point well established screen persona that actually make his performance here very convincing; the excellent supporting cast of character actors doing what these people always do in the best, the worst, and the most mediocre films; the moments of witty dialogue that generally come when you least expect it; and how the film implicitly suggests more mysteries should end with a climactic Indian (and these are “Indians”, that is, a bizarre product of unexamined clichés, suppositions and plot functions rather than Native Americans, which are of course various generally mistreated culture groups who have little to nothing to do with Hollywood’s Indians) attack instead of a chunky guy with a fake Belgian accent explaining the plot to people assembled in a room.

All the competence and these minor delights probably don’t turn Breakheart Pass into what people are bound to call a classic, but it’s such a fine example of unassuming yet not stupid genre filmmaking, I can’t say I care if that’s the case or not.

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