In April 1975, newspaper headlines reported the first planes full of Vietnam War orphans landing in the U.S. The first commercial boat crossed through the navigation lock at Lower Granite Dam. Workers were installing a roof on what would be named the Kibbie Dome, and the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley was getting a taste of Hollywood as the cast and crew of “Breakheart Pass” took up residence in the area.“Breakheart Pass” is an action Western about an undercover agent in pursuit of a ruthless gang of criminals. Murder and mystery take place aboard a train in the feature starring Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland. The steep canyons outside Lewiston and the towering wooden trestles of the Camas Prairie Railroad were chosen as the location.
The Lewiston Tribune kept readers up to date on the progress of the film, which will be shown at dusk Friday at Lewiston’s Pioneer Park, 37 years after it was made.
The opening scenes of the movie were shot a half mile east of Arrow Junction, near where the Potlatch and Clearwater rivers meet, about 15 miles east of Lewiston. When the railroad ran, the stop was called Myrtle. There the film’s crew built a handful of buildings representing a small settlement left nearly deserted after a gold rush. The film begins with a card shark played by Bronson being arrested by a marshal played by Ben Johnson, who’d won a 1971 Academy Award for “The Last Picture Show.” The two embark on a harrowing train trip with a sensational conclusion.
A second unit location, where the movie’s climax was filmed, was in the forested hills between Craigmont and Reubens. The second unit director was famed rodeo rider and stuntman Yakima Canutt, who was born near Colfax in 1896, according to his 1986 obituary that ran in newspapers nationwide. Canutt went on to become one of Hollywood’s most famous stuntmen, an orchestrator of spectacular feats on film, including the chariot race in the 1959 film “Ben Hur.” He’d received a special Oscar in 1966 for helping create the stunting profession.
Charlton Heston said that after Canutt, “It’s no longer an idiot undertaking.”
For “Breakheart Pass,” Canutt helped construct a train derailment at Halfmoon Trestle. The script called for 70 cavalry soldiers to fall to their deaths when three freight cars plunged off the track into the canyon. The train was full of dummies in 1880 U.S. Cavalry uniforms.
The crew built a short extension off the track and covered it with trees. Six cameras were used to film the cars that fell 200 feet into the canyon. The scene didn’t go quite as planned as none of the dummies flew out of the cars, the Tribune reported.
Canutt wasn’t the only rodeo rider turned film star in “Breakheart Pass.” The character of Jackson was played by 46-year-old Casey Tibbs, also known as “Casey the Kid.” Tibbs started riding steers at age 4 and at 18 won the saddle bronc title at the 1947 Lewiston Roundup. The next year he became the youngest cowboy yet to win the world championship in the event. He garnered eight more. In 1951 he made the cover of Life magazine as the image of a classic cowboy and then he started working in movies and TV. There is more money in stunts than in rodeo, he told the Tribune.
A handful of locals got bit parts in “Breakheart Pass.”
Camas Prairie Railroad Trainmaster J.W. Clem of Lewiston, 52, coordinated train movement for the film. He played the brakeman on the mythical Wasatch & Nevada Railroad.
Tom Kiiskila, a 63-year-old Orofino construction worker, was one of the character extras. It wasn’t Kiiskila’s first film role. He also appeared in the 1937 film “Come and Get It” shot near Headquarters and the 1940s film “Unconquered,” which starred Gary Cooper and was shot outside Ashton, Idaho.
When a film comes to town, the crews need food. Mary Anderson, manager of the dining room at the former Helm Restaurant in downtown Lewiston, cooked for them, serving baked steelhead, Italian food and turkey.
“The main attraction,” Anderson told the Tribune, “is the chance to get out of a motel room and away from the restaurants, gather around a table to feast and maybe have a sing-a-long after the meal is over.”
They even found time to face off with the locals in a Friday night charity basketball game with proceeds benefiting the Special Olympics.
The actors’ team, the Heartbreakers, included Joe Kapp, a former quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings who plays Henry in the film; Doug Atkins, a former Chicago Bears’ defensive end (Jebbo); light-heavyweight boxing champion Archie Moore (Carlos); and Bill McKinney, who played one of the evil hillbillies in “Deliverance” (the Rev. Peabody).
On the other side were area coaches, including University of Idaho coach Jim Jarvis, Lewis-Clark State College athletic director Dick Hannan and the head football coaches at Clarkston and Lewiston high schools, Mike Whiles and Jay Henry. The game drew an overflow crowd of more than 2,000 to the now-demolished Warrior Gym at LCSC. They swarmed the floor for autographs at the end. The locals won but the actors wrote their own ending when they changed the scoreboard in their favor.
if you go
What: “Breakheart Pass”
When: Dusk Friday
Where: Pioneer Park, Lewiston
Of note: Bring lawn chairs and blankets for seating.