If Breakheart Pass was being made today, there is no way they would haul their asses out to the middle of fucking nowhere and shoot everything live on an actual moving train. They would phone up the CGI unit, who in turn would cook up a (completely fake-looking) computer-generated train on which to superimpose the actors. They would then slap on a colored filter to mute the fakeness of the train by making everything look fake. This is the general formula nowadays, at least for outdoor, large-scale action shots. It drives me crazy. Think, for example, about how fake 2012 looked, or Shutter Island, or Inception, or virtually any recent war film, or even earlier, consider the fakeness of The Lord of the Rings, Part 1, 2 and 3. The problem is widespread and insidious.
All this CGI started out as an ill-conceived novelty, but more and more it appears to be simply a cost-cutting measure. And what is worse, there is a mindset developing that it is simply not worth the time, money or effort to capture anything realistically, because the audience has shown that it will consume the fake-looking shit with nary a grumble. I really don’t know how people can keep going to these movies. Is it that movies and computer games have become interchangeable experiences for a large majority of the paying audience, so they don’t really notice? Is it because the younger generations have never really seen how incredible action movies looked in the past? I don’t know. For my part, I’m grumbling.
First, a few words on the movie itself. I like to think of Breakheart Pass as a quaint and fun little B-film from the seventies, but actually I think it was supposed to be a pretty big movie at the time, with established stars like Bronson, Ireland, Charles Durning, and Ben Johnson. It even had Paul Newman’s son in a bit role. Watching the film now one is struck by its simple, unadorned narrative structure which to our modern eyes and ears seems hokey and unsophisticated. As my wife pointed out, the dialog and story structure is so simple it’s actually a great movie for kids (maybe this is why I liked it so much as a child?) The film could be rated G except for a few really mild bloody scenes – I don’t think there is a single curse-word in the whole movie.
But if one can get past the initial reaction that it seems like a pokey, dated little B-film, one sees that the story itself is actually tight, well paced, and interesting. Moreover, it is an incredibly soothing movie, with a really nice rhythm. The performances of the main actors are solid – the exceptions are the guys playing the Major and the Reverand, who are a bit stilted, and Jill Ireland, who … well she’s always struck me as a pretty feeble actress, but my God did that woman look great!
As for Charles Bronson, it’s amazing to be reminded how great the old-time movie stars were, even in B-films like this. Not only was he a solid actor, but his presence on screen and his amazing voice are the stuff that can carry an entire movie. What’s sad is that no one looking like Charles Bronson would ever become a star nowadays. He’s too ugly! And he’s not completely ripped from head to toe, with abs, pecs, guns and 0% body fat. But really, isn’t it more exciting to watch an action film with someone who actually looks like a man of action, instead of some pretty, baby-faced jerk-off who is cranked on steroids?
Finally, I should point out that the score of Breakheart Pass (Jerry Goldsmith) is absolutely fabulous.
Breakheart Pass creates a seductive visual world of the kind that you really don’t see anymore in films. There are occasional exceptions, but it is really rare nowadays. Because the train was real, and the terrain was real, the viewer is immersed in the culture of wilderness rail transport, and the results are mesmerizing.
What Breakheart Pass has is visual texture. There are so many scenes that are unforgetable simply because of the way they look. Even the simplest scenes, like the scene of the soldiers in a line tossing up chopped wood into the engine, you never get tired of watching. Every time the train steams around a bend, it is exciting and transporting all over again. Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is the scene at the tressle bridge where the fireman falls to his death. The sense of place that is created in this scene is incredible, especially by today’s impoverished standards. It’s just beautifully staged, and the scene sticks with you even though not much happens in it – it sticks with you because it looks so great it’s like you’re there!
Then there are the action sequences. Let’s take a look at the fight on top of the boxcars. When one sees this scene, one is stunned at how exciting action sequences used to look when they were simple and real. No CGI, no fancy chopping, no choreographed slow-mo shit to be sped up later so everyone moves like The Flash. They simply set a moving train going through real snowy terrain, put two stunt-guys up there, and filmed them fighting! What a novel concept! And the results are, to my mind, thrilling. This is what movie makers do not get anymore – simple is more exciting and more interesting.
Anyway, if you want a really pleasing little film experience from the 70s, I recommend that you Netflix Breakheart Pass and check out how marvelous things used to look, and the remarkable effect that kind of realism had on the story itself and the film experience in general.