In the 1870s, residents of the garrison at the Fort Humboldt frontier outpost of the United States Army are reported to be suffering from a diphtheria epidemic. An special express train is heading up into the remote mountain ranges towards the fort filled with reinforcements and medical supplies. There are also civilian passengers on the train in the rear luxurious private car – Nevada Governor Fairchild (Richard Crenna) and his fiancée Marica (Jill Ireland), the daughter of the fort's commander.
The train stops briefly in the small settlement /"whistle stop" of Myrtle, where it takes on board local lawman United States Marshal Pearce (Ben Johnson) and his prisoner, John Deakin (Charles Bronson), a supposedly notorious outlaw who was identified via a picture in a newspaper advertisement offering a $2,000 (approximately $44,000 today) reward. But as the journey goes on through the beautiful snowy mountain scenery, several train passengers, including most of the train's soldier escort, are mysteriously killed one by one or go missing. Deakin, who is actually an undercover U.S. Secret Service agent, discovers en route that the "epidemic" at the outpost is actually a conspiracy between a group of killers led by the notorious outlaw Levi Calhoun (Robert Tessier), and a tribe of Indians under Chief White Hand (Eddie Little Sky). Instead of medical supplies, the train's boxcars cargo transports a large secret shipment of weapons, rifles, ammunition and dynamite stolen from U.S. arms manufacturers for sale to the Indians, in return for allowing Calhoun and his men to mine and smuggle gold from their lands. Most of the people on the train, including Governor Fairchild and Marshal Pearce, are Calhoun's partners in crime, and those innocents who discover the evidence for his sinister plot are one by one quickly mysteriously silenced. Eventually, Deakin narrows his list of possible uninvolved allies down to Marica, (the Governor's fiancée) and Army Major Claremont (Ed Lauter), who when finding out that Deakin is not quite what he seemed to originally be, then agree to assist the agent in his efforts to prevent the arms delivery.
At snow-covered Breakheart Pass, all hell breaks loose as Indians attack the train to take the weapons they were promised, and Calhoun and his men ride out to the train in order to find out what's going on. Deakin and Major Claremont use dynamite to blow up and break the track rails, ground the train before it reaches the fort, and while Deakin runs interference, Claremont rushes ahead to Fort Humboldt to free the soldiers imprisoned by Calhoun's gang. A gunfight breaks out when the freed soldiers led by their commander clash with the Indians and bandits at the train; Calhoun is killed by Gov. Fairchild when he threatens Marica, but the governor is then in turn cut down by Major Claremont. At the end of the battle, Deakin interceps Marshal Pearce and shoots him when the corrupt lawman decides to go down fighting.Charles Bronson as John Deakin
Ben Johnson as U.S. Marshal Pearce
Jill Ireland as Marica
Richard Crenna as Governor Fairchild
Charles Durning as O'Brien
David Huddleston as Dr. Molyneux
Ed Lauter as Major Claremont
Bill McKinney as Reverend Peabody
Robert Tessier as Levi Calhoun
Eddie Little Sky as Chief White Hand
Joe Kapp as Henry
Archie Moore as Carlos
Scott Newman as Rafferty
Sally Kirkland as Jane-Marie
Producers Elliott Kastner and Jerry Gershwin had filmed a number of Alistair MacLean novels previously, including Where Eagles Dare and When Eight Bells Toll.
Charles Bronson was paid $1 million plus 10% of the gross for his role.
Lewiston, Idaho realtor Irv Falling, a retired U.S. Army colonel, played a cameo role as the father of Marica, Gov. Fairchild's fiancee (Jill Ireland) in the final snowy scene, as frontier army colonel and commander at Fort Humboldt reunites with his daughter. He had helped the Bronsons find a home to rent in the area mountains.
Some exteriors were filmed in Pierce and Reubens in northern Idaho.
Railroad scenes were filmed on the Camas Prairie Railroad (based in Lewiston). The hire of the train (Great Western Railway steam locomotive #75) carriages and track cost $500,000 (approximately $2,225,000 today). Opening scenes in the Myrtle settlement / "whistle stop" were shot at a specially built set (to look like an old abandoned Gold Rush town) just outside Arrow junction about 15 miles from Lewiston. It was the final film role participation for longtime veteran stuntman Yakima Canutt, who was aged 79 at the time. He was in charge of the second unit direction; his son, Joe, was one of the stuntmen. Canutt oversaw the scene where the caboose and troop carriages crashed off the rail line into a ravine. Six cameras filmed the cars falling 200 ft (61 m) into the canyon, however, the dummies (representing the soldiers) failed to fall out during the crash. The crash was filmed at Halfmoon Trestle (see here: 46°19′30.21″N 116°34′27.36″W).
Alternating shots of clear and overcast skies are present in the final climactic scenes.
The Los Angeles Times called it "a fun if familiar picture but is played so broadly on such an elementary level that it can hope to satisfy only the most undemanding of viewer."
The film was a box office disappointment in the US.Release date: December 19, 2000
Full Screen & Widescreen Anamorphic
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 & 16:9
Audio tracks: English, French
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Running time: 95 minutes
Kino Video released "Breakheart Pass" for the first time on Blu-ray on August 12, 2014.
A limited edition (3,000 run) CD soundtrack of Breakheart Pass, highlighting the original music of Jerry Goldsmith, was released by La-La Land Records. It is out of print.