Breakheart Pass

Posted on January 23rd, 2011 in 1970s, Charles Bronson, Westerns, Tom Gries by Colin

Poster

A Charles Bronson western written by a Scotsman and combining elements of a whodunnit and an espionage thriller sounds very much like a recipe for disaster. Despite that, Breakheart Pass (1975) actually works quite well; it’s never going to be considered a classic but it is wonderfully entertaining and looks great. A fine cast and some first class talent behind the camera have a lot to do with this of course. For me, the fact that a significant part of the action takes place aboard a train adds to the pleasure, as I’m a huge fan of anything that exploits the dramatic possibilities of having a group of suspicious characters all cooped up together and denied the opportunity to escape. 

A military train carrying reinforcements, and medicines is bound for Fort Humboldt, where a diptheria epidemic is raging out of control. Aside from soldiers, there’s a number of civilian passengers aboard, all with official reasons for being there. Their numbers are swollen right at the beginning though when Marshal Pearce (Ben Johnson) muscles his way through the protocol in order to get both himself and his newly acquired prisoner, a wanted murderer and arsonist, John Deakin (Charles Bronson) a couple of berths. Before the train has even pulled away from the halt two army officers have mysteriously vanished, and it’s clear from the shifty behaviour of practically every passenger that nothing is quite as it seems. While the locomotive chugs its way towards the stricken fort the unexplained incidents, and the bodies, start to pile up ominously. The senior army officer, Major Claremont (Ed Lauter), is growing uneasy while the Marshal and the most prominent passenger, Governor Fairchild (Richard Crenna), seem reluctant to treat matters as anything more than ill fortune and coincidence. All the while, Deakin moves surreptitiously from carriage to carriage pursuing some undefined agenda of his own. It’s only when the troop cars are sheared off and sent careening away into mid-air and subsequent carnage that it becomes clear to everyone how grave the danger is, and that a ruthless killer is in their midst. The movie trades heavily on the fact that all the passengers are potential suspects; it’s a constant guessing game for the viewer to try to figure out who’s behind the ever increasing mayhem. Just about everyone appears to have something to hide yet it’s difficult to see how any individual could wreak such havoc. Of course all is eventually revealed before a slam bang finish draws the curtain on an hour and a half of solid entertainment.

Ben Johnson and Charles Bronson are among those doing the fencing on the way to Breakheart Pass.

Most of Alistair MacLean’s books which were adapted for the big screen have something to keep you interested. While his writing was fairly formulaic, it’s not hard to see why so many of his stories ended up being filmed; they tend to have a cinematic quality in that the plots are definitely to the fore and the characters usually have a shadowy aspect that’s only gradually revealed. The biggest failing tends to be in the dialogue, his later work suffering especially. Breakheart Pass has a few such instances, when characters come out with lines that just don’t ring true in any way. Director Tom Gries had already directed a couple of very enjoyable westerns, the one of particular note being Will Penny with Charlton Heston. His shooting of the action scenes is hard to fault and, apart from the free-for-all finale, the fight atop the moving train is one of the best parts of the movie. Bronson and former light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore get to slug it out in an excellently choreographed scene that’s tense, exciting and real looking - no doubt the presence of the great Yakima Canutt, as stunt coordinator had something to do with it too. Of course, the aforementioned crash of the runaway troop cars is another of the big set pieces that’s both mesmerizing and horrifying. Furthermore, Lucien Ballard was on lens duty and, as you would expect, the photography of the outdoor scenes is quite spectacular. And rounding out the crew is Jerry Goldsmith, who provided another of his memorably upbeat scores that draws you in from the moment the title credits roll. As far as the acting’s concerned, Bronson is his usual laconic self, speaking only when there’s a need to but holding off on the physical stuff for long stretches. His character is no brainless lug and he plays him with restraint and enough thoughtfulness to make him believable. Although the wife was also in the cast there’s, mercifully in my opinion, no contrived romance to take the attention away from the twisty plot. Ben Johnson is always a pleasure to watch and just got better and better with age. His character isn’t the best defined one that he played but he still manages to make his mark on the movie - all his little gestures and his characteristic delivery keep reminding you that you’re watching a genuine westerner in action. Richard Crenna and Ed Lauter, as the Governor and the Major, have just enough oily charm and nervy anxiety respectively to keep the viewer guessing about their motives too.

MGM’s UK DVD of Breakheart Pass is a reasonably good effort. The anamorphic transfer is the kind that’s not especially remarkable but doesn’t have any major issues either. The colour looks true enough to my eyes and there’s no notable damage to the print - the image doesn’t pop off the screen but nor does it disappoint. The only extra included is the trailer, along with a variety of subtitle options. So, we’re talking here about a movie that’s best described as good, competent entertainment. It doesn’t offer anything groundbreaking but there are far worse ways to spend an hour and a half. It’s the kind of film that will obviously grip the viewer more the first time it’s seen, however, there’s enough in the action scenes, acting and visuals to ensure it’s worth revisiting.

Breakout

Posted on February 12th, 2009 in 1970s, Charles Bronson, Tom Gries, Robert Duvall by Colin

Poster

Some movies just can’t seem to decide what they want to be, and that’s pretty much the case with Breakout (1975). Charles Bronson made a string of pretty good and entertaining movies through the 70s, none of which were ever going to draw too much critical acclaim. Breakout boasts an embarrassment of talent both in front of and behind the camera, but never manages to make the best use of it. The main problem lies with the script, which lurches from near farcical comedy, to drama, then on to action, and back again without ever really succeeding at any of them. In the end, the movie tries to be too many things and just loses its way.

Jay Wagner (Robert Duvall) is a wealthy American who finds himself kidnapped in Chile, hauled off to Mexico to face trumped up charges in a rigged trial, and sentenced to 28 years in a prison run by Emilio Fernandez (General Mapache of The Wild Bunch). It’s never made clear exactly why Wagner needs to be subjected to this treatment; all we know is that both his powerful grandfather (John Huston) and a rogue CIA agent wish to see him safely out of the way. Only Wagner’s wife Ann (Jill Ireland) seems intent on proving his innocence or, failing that, breaking him out of jail. It is to this end that she comes to hire Nick Colton (Bronson), a less than successful charter pilot. As Wagner begins to decay physically and psychologically, a number of attempts are hatched to spring him from his incarceration. A combination of poor planning and betrayal ensures that they fail, until Colton decides to take the bull by the horns and do what no-one expects. This is another problem with the film; after the total incompetence of the first couple of botched jailbreaks, we are suddenly presented with an operation that’s planned and executed with military precision.

Charles Bronson - clearly not happy with the choice of curtains in this scene

Bronson is about the best thing in the film and obviously enjoyed the opportunity to indulge in some lighter moments. However, those moments of clowning around with Randy Quaid and Sheree North sit a little uncomfortably with the sombre tone of the prison scenes where Duvall is slowly disintegrating. Director Tom Gries and the writers didn’t seem to know whether they wanted to make a serious prison movie or a spoof caper, and ended up falling between two stools. Thus we get the startling sight of Quaid dragged up as a Mexican whore juxtaposed with scenes of Duvall breaking down and assaulting his own wife. I don’t think I’ve seen Duvall give too many bad performances and I couldn’t fault his playing here. He’s pretty convincing as a man who goes from being strong and self-confident to a character whose health and will are gradually broken. As for Jill Ireland, the less said the better. She was a fairly limited actress whose blank countenance was ill-suited to playing the kind of emotional role this film called for. John Huston has a small cameo role that’s really wasted as it goes nowhere. In fact, his character simply disappears about half way into the story and is never mentioned again. Emilio Fernandez is similarly underused, and doesn’t have much more to do than leer sadistically in his bogeyman part.

Breakout has been given a nice anamorphic transfer to DVD by Columbia. The disc in R2 is a barebones affair, but it can be picked up for next to nothing. When you get a movie with a cast like this, a score by Jerry Goldsmith and cinematography by Lucien Ballard, it’s not unreasonable to expect something more satisfying. On top of all the other issues there are some exceedingly poor effects shots; notably a man falling to his death through a tiled roof that looks suspiciously like it’s made of canvas, and the appalling demise of another guy who’s supposed to get minced by a plane propeller. I wouldn’t call Breakout a total failure, it does have a few entertaining turns and Bronson is always watchable, but it could have been a whole lot better. This one’s pretty much for Bronson completists - I guess I’m guilty on that score.

100 Rifles

Posted on January 23rd, 2008 in Directors, Actors, 1960s, Westerns, Tom Gries, Burt Reynolds by Colin

100 Rifles

1969 saw the release of two westerns that featured Americans dabbling in the Mexican revolution. Both pictures involved hijacked arms shipments, trains, advancing technology, European military advisers and elaborately staged shootouts with the Federales. One, of course, was Sam Peckinpah’s seminal, genre-defining masterpiece  The Wild Bunch - the other was Tom Gries’ popcorn entertainment 100 Rifles. Since copious amounts of scholarly writing has already been devoted to the former, I’m going to look at the latter.

A year before, Tom Gries had directed the thoughtful and elegiac Will Penny - his next project was a distinct departure. 100 Rifles tells of Lyedecker, an American lawman (Jim Brown), who ventures south of the border in pursuit of Yaqui Joe (Burt Reynolds) who has stolen a consignment of weapons - the hundred rifles of the title. The guns are to be presented to the Yaqui Indians to assist them in their struggle against the Mexican authorities. Naturally, the Federales - led by a thoroughly sadistic Fernando Lamas - are keen to acquire these rifles for themselves. And there you have it. Will Lyedecker carry out his sworn duty and bring Joe back for trial? Will he be seduced by the plight of the Yaqui? Will the Federales beat them all to the chase? By the time the movie hurtles along to its grandstand climax all those questions have been resolved.

A helluva way to run a railroad!

All the main players give amiable performances here with likable heroes and hissable villains. Burt Reynolds may not be the greatest actor in the world, but it’s hard not to like him on screen. Jim Brown is merely passable and Fernando Lamas is suitably vile. Dan O’Herlihy is always watchable as the railroad boss with shifting allegiances. But the real standout here is Raquel Welch as the revolutionary, Sarita. The scene where she stops a whole trainload of Federales as she takes a shower under a water tower is reason enough to see this film on its own!

OK, so this isn’t the best western you’ll ever see but its heart is in the right place, there’s more than enough action to satisfy, and Jerry Goldsmith’s score suits the mood of the piece perfectly. Available in a great looking anamorphic transfer from Fox in R1.