In August, 1971, a helicopter touched down inside the yard of Mexico City's Santa Maria Acatitla prison for just ten seconds. It took off with two men: Carlos Antonio Contreras Castro, a counterfeiter from Venezuela, and Joel David Kaplan, a 44-year-old businessman from New York. Kaplan, a former courier for Fidel Castro and the nephew of molasses baron, Jacob M. Kaplan, had been convicted of the murder of his business partner, Louis Vidal, Jr., in 1962. Despite serious doubts that the body found was that of Vidal’s, despite Vidal’s association with drug dealers and gunsmugglers, who, Kaplan insisted, had orchestrated an elaborate plot to fake his own death and disappear, Kaplan was sentenced to 28 years in the Mexican prison. (Time Magazine)
With his uncle’s J.M. Kaplan Fund under a 1964 congressional investigation under suspicion of acting as a money laundering conduit between Latin America and the CIA, the younger Kaplan had very few people to turn to in either country. Were it not for his sister, Judith Kaplan Dowis, and a rock star lawyer from San Francisco named Vasilios Basil Choulos, Kaplan may very well have died inside the prison. Instead, Choulos enlisted the help of pilot Roger Hershner, who painted a bell helicopter to look like that of Mexico’s attorney general’s. One hundred-and-thirty-six guards were interrogated for complicity but no inside man had been employed. In point of fact, nearly the entire population of the prison, employees and convicts alike, had been inside watching the first recreational movie shown in more than two years. Attorney General Julio Sanchez Vargas resigned in disgrace.
Once in the U.S., Kaplan was granted immunity—Choulos told the Mexican government that his client was a CIA operative, though that really didn’t satisfy anyone and was unlikely to be true anyway. Kaplan, Choulos and Hershner sat down with writers Warren Hinckle, William Turner and Eliot Asinof and the sextet released a book, The Ten-Second Jailbreak: The Helicopter Escape Of Joel David Kaplan. The book was excerpted in Playboy and immediately optioned by Hollywood producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin “I love disaster!” Winkler, to be directed by Mike Ritchie and to star Kris Kristoferson.
The story was eventually filmed and released in 1975 as Breakout, directed by Tom Gries and starring Charles Bronson, Robert Duvall, Jill Ireland, Sherree North, Randy Quaid, Paul Mantee, John Huston and Emilio “El Indio” Fernadez. The bizarre and exciting story of both Kaplan and Choulos and the ten-second rescue had been boiled down to the finest of all formulas, released with the taglines, “Sentenced to 28 years in prison for a crime he never committed. Only two things can get him out—a lot of money and Charles Bronson!” and more confusing, “No prison can hold…Charles Bronson!”
If you take the facts into consideration, which one should never do apparently, Bronson plays neither Choulos nor Hershner, but an amalgam named Nick Colton, a border country bush pilot and occasional con-artist. He owns a Cessna and a fishery in a partnership with Randy Quaid (as ‘Hawkins’) and is approached one hot afternoon by Ann Wagner, wife of wrongly-imprisoned Jay Wagner. She employs Colton to fly her into Mexico but doesn’t tell him why. She does pay his price, “Twelve hundred…and thirty-nine dollars. And fifty-two cents.”
In Breakout’s scenario, Jay is the grandson of a fruit magnate with CIA ties played by John Huston, turning in his usual solid worn-out criminal mastermind character. Harris Wagner makes some vague reference to Jay’s free-spiritedness proving to be a detriment to both the company’s stockholders and the interest of the Central Intelligence Agency, and therefore has a slick lawyerly-looking op named Cable (Paul Mantee) to frame Jay for a random murder. Despite Jay being in Chile and the murder taking place in Mexico, holds no sway over the judge, who pronounces swift and lengthy sentence.
Jay’s first attempt at escape goes badly. After paying some trustees to smuggle him out in a sealed coffin, laying bent-backed on top of the box’s other occupant. Because the warden and General is played by “El Indio”—better known to audiences as the ruthless Mapache in The Wild Bunch—he lets the prisoners simply bury Jay alive for a while. Jay then falls prey to choppy editing because the next time we see him, he’s back inside the prison looking only slightly worse for wear.
Colton and Ann have barely touched down near the prison when they come under fire and are forced to leave a running Jay behind. Presumably, Colton yells at Ann the entire way back to his airfield, because he emerges with a sentence starting with “And—!” But Ann sweetens the deal with some more money, getting Colton to thinking, which also doesn’t turn out well. Attempting to use Myrna (North), an old girlfriend and current worn-down wife of the Deputy Sheriff, as misdirection for the horny guards, she refuses and he’s forced to put Hawk in drag instead. “With enough make-up, anyone can look like a whore,” says Myrna philosophically. Except, of course, for Randy Quaid, who makes a less-convincing female than Bugs Bunny. He’s beaten up by the guards (taking an extremely painful and realistic blow to the head from a rifle butt) and thus the situation becomes, for Colton, personal. Even though it wasn’t his ass thoroughly kicked.
Meanwhile, Jay’s health is deteriorating inside the cell and unbeknownst to him (but not us, since we saw the violent and Peckinpah-ish slow-mo opening) his new cellmate is the actual triggerman in Jay’s frame-up, forced at gunpoint to shoot who seems to be someone quite close to him. Either that or Sosa (Jorge Moreno) bawls at the drop of a bullet. How unmanly. Jay’s unhappy at being incarcerated, he takes it out on Ann during one of their conjugal visits, which becomes extremely non-conjugal, lessening our sympathy for him a bit, but because Jill Ireland plays the rape scene with the same distracted indifference that she uses throughout the film, it isn’t really that affecting.
Eventually, Colton gets around to taking some helicopter piloting lessons but proves to be terrible—until it counts, of course. By the third act, his convoluted-yet-simplistic escape plan involves a still-broken Hawk, Myrna (“Keep poppin’ up to ‘borrow’ my wife? She ain’t a lawnmower!” exclaims Deputy/Hubby Spencer) and his soon-to-be-married flight instructor. As we know from the real-life story, Colton successfully liberates Jay, but since this is a Bronson movie and he hasn’t gotten to punch anyone for over an hour, the suspense is continued at the customs department in Mexico City, where everyone finally confronts the slick, sleazy CIA fellow.
I don’t mean to be harsh towards Breakout in pointing out its silly beats. The movie is actually extremely watchable and a good deal of fun. Jill “Mrs. Bronson” Ireland is a real drawback, with her dull accent, glassy eyes and implausible wigs. Duvall is mostly wasted, spending his time in the dark or in hospital beds, leaving one with the suspicion that most of his story was left on the cutting room floor in favor of more Bronson. Huston’s two scenes with Mantee seem to be from a different movie and he pretty much vanishes by Act II.
So what we’re left with is a surprisingly-relaxed and easy-going Bronson. In his fifties by this point, his squinty eyes and weathered skin makes his face resemble a catcher’s mitt, but he’s obviously having a good time playing the gutsy make-it-up-as-he-goes hero. Breakout must have been a relief for him after playing all of his famed anti-hero roles in The Mechanic, Mr. Majestyk and Death Wish. Gries direction is almost absent, but there is some magnificent photography courtesy of DP Lucien Ballard and 2nd Unit Director Bob Bender, including a real hero shot of the rescue’s commencement featuring Colton’s convertible, the Cessna and the helicopter all framed against the desert backdrop. North and Quaid are both solid—North’s trampy character and yen for Colton are real low comedy highlights—and both the escape and the climax are tense and well-staged.
There’s even a surprising death for one villain where we see his entire body shredded by a plane propeller, rivaling Hungry Joe’s death in Catch-22. It’s an obvious effect today, as many IMDb reviewers point out, but in the ‘70s it had to have been quite shocking. Hell, it still packs a jolt at the moment.
But the film’s loss is not including the real-life hero Vasilios “Bill” Choulos. A fascinating character in and of himself, Choulos made a name for himself in San Francisco as a crusader for the common man in fhe face of government, corporations and industry. One of the first attorneys to ever file a lawsuit against the tobacco industry, a man who traveled all over the world to represent the families of pilots killed in crashes of the faulty F-104 Starfighter “widow maker” jets, he also represented members of Sonny Barger’s Hell’s Angels in a high profile murder case and served on the defense team for Jack Ruby. His clients included Lenny Bruce, Timothy Leary and Abby Hoffman and was one of the few men to correspond directly with the Zodiac Killer. He opened his home to his counter-culture clients and over time it became a kind of artist community.
In his obituary in the SF Chronicle in 2003, his partner, Claude Wyle, said of Choulos, “A lot of the work he did in products liability paved the way for lawyers in this country today. He was a brilliant negotiator whose brutal honesty could get under people's skin, but somehow also endeared him to others. Anything that's timely today, he's already done it, and he was probably the first to do it.” (Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer)
Honestly, it might not have been too much of a stretch to turn Bronson into this brilliant crime-fighting legal mind. He certainly demonstraits in Breakout that he possessed a rarely-employed mischievous sense of humor. Rather than the down-and-out everyman tough guy that he delivered time and time again, the movie really could have benefited for another touch or two of the outrageous to throw off the beats and numbers just a little. But that’s just hindsight. You want Bronson, in Breakout you get Bronson, albeit just a little more relaxed and less murdery.