The late nineteenth century and there's a train carrying soldiers travelling across the frozen West. It has stopped to collect water for the engine at an outpost, and the passengers include a governor (Richard Crenna) and his charge, Marica (Jill Ireland). Also on board is the Marshall (Ben Johnson) and when he goes for a drink in the local tavern, he overhears a poker game that is causing an argument thanks to the cheating of one John Deakin (Charles Bronson), who it turns out is a man wanted by the law. The Marshall promptly arrests him and takes him aboard a train that will soon be struck with mystery... and danger.
Breakheart Pass was scripted by the Scottish adventure writer Alistair MacLean, whose books were huge sellers in his day but now are oddly neglected. While this one didn't reach the heights of his The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare, either in popularity or entertainment value, it was still a very decent western, even if it did seem to have been written by Agatha Christie rather than MacLean. Christie, however, would not have been so keen to leave so much unexplained by the conclusion as is the case here.
Additionally, this film was made at the height of Charles Bronson's stardom, in America at least - he had been a big star in Europe for around a decade by this point, being much of that continent's favourite American tough guy. Not to be confused with Breakout, also made that year and directed by Tom Gries too, this was a slightly better film although it could well result in you scratching your head by the end wondering who did what to whom as the filmmakers were content to allow the plot to keep its conundrums for the sake of letting the forward momentum carry on its journey.
While you're watching it, however, there's no denying that it's an intriguing movie, and thanks to some excellent photography, the snowbound landscape really places the characters in isolation as the bodies mount up. Only a small number of the them are who they claim to be, and of course Deakin has more than cards up his sleeve as we find out when he transpires to have medical experience, useful when the doctor (David Huddleston) is killed, and skill with explosives and most importantly, detection as well. Who is this guy?
Fortunately that's one question we are offered the answer to, but before that we have to be puzzled by the deaths that are occuring. The train is ostensibly heading towards a military base that is suffering under a diptheria epidemic, yet when we see scenes of the place there seems to be some kind of siege there, with ne'erdowells ordering the soldiers about. Meanwhile, on the train the number of passengers is being drastically reduced, mainly thanks to someone breaking the connection between the carriages holding the soldiers and the rest of them, leading them to plunge to their deaths. Who would do such a thing? Search me, we never find out. Breakheart Pass passes the time divertingly, but is perhaps best recommended to steam locomotive enthusiasts: there are plenty of scenic shots of that classic vehicle rumbling along the tracks. Music by Jerry Goldsmith, a very fine score.