Few actors saw their legacy as thoroughly soiled by the commercial demands and general bad taste of the 1980s like Charles Bronson. Ask anyone who was paying attention to movies in that decade about him, and you’ll hear about a steady stream of action junk – much of it produced by Cannon Films, the legendry purveyors of exploitation trash who, the story goes, threw most of the scripts that came their way into one of two piles for “the two Chucks,” Norris and Bronson.
Cannon got into the Bronson business in 1982, when they produced Death Wish II, the first of four sequels to the 1974 smash that finally made Bronson a star (in America; he’d been a draw overseas for years). But Bronson was loathe to return to the character, and to the mindless violence and unrepentant exploitation it represented, and his reluctance is understandable; its unsurprising success solidified him as a star of dumb action movies and little else, and indeed much of the rest of his filmography consists of either Death Wish sequels, or dopey shoot-‘em-ups that may as well have been.
But from a career standpoint, he didn’t have much choice. He hoped the commercial success of Death Wish would allow him to make a variety of pictures, and for a time, it did: he displays genuine skill, versatility, and charisma in the romantic comedy From Noon Till Three (1976), Walter Hill’s tough Hard Times (1975), the mystery thriller St. Ives (1976), and the Western epic The White Buffalo (1977). But audiences didn’t show up.
One of their most egregious oversights was Breakheart Pass, one of two films Bronson made in 1975 with director Tom Gries (they also collaborated on the prison break movie Breakout). Adapted by Alistair MacLean from his novel, it’s a rip-roaring, rock solid entertainment, pairing Bronson with his wife and frequent on-screen leading lady Jill Ireland and a stellar assemblage of ace character actors: Ben Johnson, Charles Durning, Ed Lauer, David Huddleston, and Richard Crenna.
Bronson – in a spectacular coat and hat – stars as John Deakin, a man wanted for “theft, gambling debts, arson and murder,” though from the beginning, we’re assumed to be on his side, mostly because he’s Charles Bronson. He’s taken prisoner by a U.S. Marshal Pearce (Johnson) and put an Army transport train passing through on its way to Fort Humboldt; reinforcements are on the train, and medical supplies, as well as the governor (Crenna) and his young fiancé (Ireland). But this is no standard run. Fort Humboldt is in the midst of a diphtheria outbreak, a tribe of Native Americans is about to attack, and a notorious outlaw that’s supposedly being held at the fort has, in fact, taken it over. And then people start turning up dead on the train.
Breakheart Pass is one of those wonderful movies that’s constantly doing three or four things at once, and all of them well; Gries and MacLean construct the picture as a freewheeling Western adventure, but it’s also a whodunit (comparisons to Murder on the Orient Express are inevitable), a sly romance, and a twist-filled thriller. The string of train detachments, crashes, and shenanigans legitimately recall The General, and the stunt work is genuinely impressive (several scenes, particularly a rough fistfight atop the moving, snow-covered boxcars, look straight-up dangerous).
Yet the best thing in the movie is Bronson, and that – not to belabor the point – is surprising if you only know him from his late action work. The film rests on his shoulders, and not just from a physical standpoint; Gries situates his shots so that we spend much of the picture watching him listening, thinking, and scheming. He lights the picture up with his bemused line readings and roguish charm, and (like in the similarly lively and delightful From Noon Till Three), you buy Ireland’s attraction to him, and not only because of their real-life partnership.
Add in a rousing Jerry Goldsmith score and picturesque photography by the great Lucien Ballard, and you’ve got one of the great hidden gems of the late 1970s. And yet, no one showed up, even in that vaunted decade, in which we’re told that chances were taken and audiences were more adventurous and cinema thrived, even while box office charts are readily available indicating a reliance on blockbusters and formula and familiarity that’s not that far from our own. One wonders what would have happened if films like Breakheart Pass and From Noon Till Three and the rest of them had connected, if audiences were willing to turn out for Bronson in movies that weren’t Death Wish or its clones. One wonders how many great performances we missed in the process.