I would suggest that from 1974 to 1977, Charles Bronson, was at the height of his powers on movie screens. This excellent mystery western set on a train from director Tom Gries might include the most talented ensemble cast the mustached icon fronted as a leading man and there’s even some well known names behind the camera that only add to the reasons why this is a fine piece of entertainment.
“To begin with trust no one …. and believe half of what you see …. because nothing is as it appears …. and nobody is who they seem to be.”
I love movie trailers from the 70’s and 80’s when a deep voiced narrator (usually Don LaFontaine as it is here) warns us of what to expect should we pay for a ticket at the box office.
Scripted by Alistair MacLean from his own novel, our story begins when a troop train carrying medical supplies pulls into a small settlement on it’s way to Fort Humboldt that is besieged with an outbreak of diphtheria. This presents a great time to introduce the majority of our cast and eventual murder suspects. Ed Lauter is the officer in charge of the troops, Richard Crenna is a Governor who is romantically linked to beautiful Jill Ireland. She’s on board as it’s her father who is commanding Fort Humboldt. Charles Durning, Bill McKiiney, David Huddleston as the doctor who is needed to aid the sick and Roy Jenson as the engineer.
It’s in this small settlement in a makeshift saloon that Bronson makes a striking entrance to our story. Barely uttering a word he gets involved in a poker game and is caught cheating by John Mitchum. Western favorite Ben Johnson steps in as a Marshal and learns there’s a wanted poster on Bronson for multiple murders. He’ll now need the train to take his man to justice. What’s Bronson have to say to the charges against him ….. “I’m not a man of violence.”
What the ….. seriously what kind of horseshit line is that? A paying customer at the box office circa 1975 is sure to want his/her money back if that line proves to be true … calm down. Let’s all just sit back down and see where this goes.
It’s a rather small train with just a few cars including the fancy parlor like one where a good majority of our verbal exchanges will take place with Bronson at first cuffed, tied and relegated to the floor which results in a sympathetic comment from Ireland on his behalf to the mean spirited Johnson. Result? A big smile from Charlie. Who says he never smiled on camera?
After a pair of Lauter’s officers go missing and Dr. Huddleston ( aka The Big Lebowski) is found dead, Bronson, is called upon to look at the body. His wanted poster points out he had medical training before going bad and his findings are that the good doctor was murdered. There’s a killer on board and a mystery further up the track. One that is exposed not long into the film. Screen heavy Robert Tessier is lying in wait at the Fort. He and his outlaw gang have taken control and are awaiting the train’s arrival. There is no plague befallen the Fort and Tessier’s in league with someone aboard the train. Bronson fans will instantly recognize Tessier for his knuckle busting fist fight against Bronson in Hard Times.
Like an Agatha Christie mystery, the bodies are going to begin piling up or rather falling off the train in this case. Outlaw Bronson seems to be more than casually interested in just what’s going on as the train travels through a snowy backdrop. Without giving too much away there’s a damn good bit of action on the top of a railway car when Bronson goes toe to toe with the former Light Heavyweight Champion of the World, Archie Moore.
Backed by a rousing Jerry Goldsmith score and Lucien Ballard’s photography, director Gries once again delivers a fine piece of western entertainment. He’d previously done 100 Rifles and the excellent Will Penny (1968). This was the second film released in 1975 that teamed the director and star. The other being Breakout released earlier in the season. Sadly Gries passed away in 1977 leaving me to wonder if they’d have teamed up for more cinematic adventures. Another name action fans will spot in the credits is that of famed stunt man / coordinator Yakima Canutt who handled 2nd unit directorial duties and stunt choreography with his son Joe as a credited stuntman on this one.
Bronson and costar Colonel Trautman …. I mean Richard Crenna, can trace their careers back to the early 1950’s. As a matter of fact both appeared unbilled in a Richard Widmark movie titled Red Skies of Montana in 1952. Ed Lauter would go on to appear with Charlie in The White Buffalo while lending a hand against New York muggers in Death Wish 3. Jill was by this point a regular addition to the Bronson world of film making and would continue to be up until her untimely death in 1990.
Long time character actor and often cast as the heavy, Roy Jenson, was a regular contributor to Tom Gries projects going back to an episode of Bob Hope presents The Chrysler Theater in 1965. They’d continue on TV fare like The Monroes and Batman. Moving to films Gries would cast Jenson in movies Will Penny, Number One, Fools, The Glass House, Journey Through Rosebud, Call to Danger, both Bronson efforts of ’75, Breakout and Breakheart Pass and finally the telefilm Helter Skelter in 1977. I guess we could call Roy the leading member of the Tom Gries stock company. Roy was also a member of the Clint Eastwood stock company appearing in 5 Eastwood titles as was Deliverance’s Bill McKinney playing the minister on board the train bound for Breakheart Pass.
Be sure to watch this one if you haven’t seen it already. It comes near the tail end of a great run of Bronson titles where he was attempting roles slightly outside the usual gun toting avenger. Films like Hard Times, Mr. Majestyk, Death Wish, St. Ives, Breakout, Telefon, White Buffalo, Raid On Entebbe and From Noon Till Three, his one and only comedy. An original film poster here in the collection? No need to ask.
And here’s the trailer to see what lies ahead at Breakheart Pass with a taste of Goldsmith’s score accompanied by that flavorful voice over narration. Enjoy.