‘Breakheart Pass’ or — All Aboard the Stupidity Express?
‘Breakheart Pass’ (1975) is a stupid movie.
The story is stupid. The dialogue is stupid. The characters are stupid. Their motivations are stupid. Their actions are stupid. Their hair and moustaches are stupid. Visually the film fluctuates between impressive location shots and cheap looking studio sets so even the cinematography is stupid. There’s an exciting fight on top of the train as it passes a huge, plunging chasm but Charles Bronson’s stuntman looks just like Inspector Clouseau so that’s stupid too.
The main culprit for all this unfettered stupidity is Alistair MacLean’s script which commits two massive screenwriting errors, namely — mistaking people arguing as a form of dramatic tension and assuming that coyly withholding plot points is a valid way of generating suspense. Both of these decisions are stupid. What this means is that for most of the movie we don’t have any idea what’s going on, what the film is about, who Bronson’s character is or what he’s doing or what any of it all means. It’s SO stupid.
The movie opens with a train carrying medical supplies and re-enforcements from the small town of Myrtle to the garrison of Fort Humboldt where a diphtheria epidemic has broken out. Fort Humboldt is only a couple of miles away from Myrtle but it takes Charles Bronson and the train several days to get there because they keep going back and forth across the same bridge so many times.
Meanwhile, dozens of soldiers have been murdered, bodies are piling up left right and centre and nobody seems to think there’s anything suspicious going on or that something should be done about it. By the time we do find out who Bronson’s character is and what he’s up to I shouted at my TV set “Well, THAT’S stupid!”
Until then it’s a litany of stupid decisions, daft contrivances and idiotic conveniences. At one point the train stops overnight so the driver can have a sleep so Bronson, who is under arrest for murder, is put in charge of keeping the engine stoked all by himself and unguarded. This gives Bronson the perfect opportunity to do some sneaky detective work even though he should be stoking the engine, a job he should never have been given in the first place yet is something he manages to do and still discover hidden bodies all at the same time.
Or how about when an engineer falls from the train to his death on the rocks below? Bronson climbs down to inspect the body only to declare it was murder because the engineer had a gash in his head and “dead mean don’t bleed” meaning the engineer was struck on the head before his death, even though he had also hit every single strut of the bridge on the way down meaning he should be nothing but a bloody pulp anyway. It’s incredibly stupid!
All this gives the script the feeling of a being a first draft or of in need of a serious polish, and the way the narrative lurches from one incident to the next with the ungraceful jolts of a braking locomotive sometimes makes it feel as though entire pages are missing or had been condensed almost to the point of non-existence.
So ‘Breakheart Pass’ in an unwatchable mess, right? Oddly enough, no! Look, I’m not saying the film is any good or even that it’s in any way engaging (it certainly isn’t compelling so if you’re looking for a film to watch whilst dopamine fasting then this is the movie for you) but if someone had went to turn the movie off before it had finished then I’d have wrestled them to the floor before they could reach the remote control because ‘Breakheart Pass’ is an incredibly easy watch and actually kinda fun. For one thing, it requires no mental effort on the part of the viewer in the slightest so you can actually feel your brain recharging while watching it, and even though the pacing and flow are jerky and lurchy in the extreme it rolls along in a pleasing enough fashion.
Plus, at only 94 minutes, it’s a great example of what you can get away with if you stick to a brief running time, even if what ‘Breakheart Pass’ is getting away with is seeing how much pedestrian adequacy you can cram into an hour and a half.
When the film finished I was aware that I had just watched something spectacularly average, almost as though director Tom Gries had deliberately set out to capture mediocrity on camera, but I was also aware that I had a big grin on my face. And yes, it was a stupid one.