Breakheart Pass (1975)

Tom Gries directs Charles Bronson, Richard Crenna and Ben Johnson in this Alistair McLean thriller where a steam train making its way through the Wild West contains a conspiracy that is murdering the innocent passengers.

A movie star I could never get my head around is Charles Bronson. He’s wrinkled like a walnut, pugnacious and void of any real personality. I get the feeling he only existed to mop up the leftover projects than Clint and Steve McQueen deemed beneath them. But whereas those two genuine legends brought a charm and buried sparkle to the screen amid their gruff adventuring (they were their era’s embodiment of old fashioned ruggedness combined with a new self-aware cool), he is just a cowpuncher whose response to the changing cultural landscape was the occasional drop kick. Your proper stars felt like they moved with counter culture, kept their heads above the hippy movement by being both a counterpoint and a veiled acceptance. Whereas Bronson probably actively pursued scripts where he could genocide the youth movement or ignore it all together. McQueen has McGraw and Clint Sondra Locke. Their respective partners on and off screen. McGraw was a proper star in her own right. Locke had very little likability. Pointedly Bronson’s wife / perennial romantic interest was Jill Ireland. She’s a million times more charismatic than him. A far better actress than Locke by any measure, warmer with more than one setting on her emotional register. She and the supporting cast are the best thing in this. Charles Durning, Ed Lauter and David Huddlestone too. An ensemble whodunnit on a Western train… that descends into actioner when it turns out nearly everyone still alive is in on the plot. Would it be improved by McQueen being the lead? He probably would have found it old hat, only the later set pieces are passable. Would Clint have elevated it? Nah, he would have swapped out Ireland for Locke. Thus one step forward and two back. Forgettable stuff but those B players and that in-the-wild location stunt work suggest a better man could have forced this project into being an action classic.

5

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