Easily the most neglected of the many classic films made by Sam Peckinpah, Cross of Iron is one of the most nihilistic war films ever made.
Peckinpah was a true auteur; his stamp of authorship is evident in nearly every film that bears his name. Along with Arthur Penn (director of Bonnie and Clyde) Peckinpah revolutionised the presentation of violence in American cinema, most forcefully with this western The Wild Bunch (1969) – a film that has lost none of its visceral power in the 21st century. Peckinpah used elaborate parallel editing, multi-camera set ups and innovative use of slow motion, to capture being in the moment of violence when fear and adrenalin combine to make time stretch. His methods have been copied and imitated by a succession of action directors, but the sheer skill on display in his best works (of which there are both many, and not nearly enough) dwarfs the efforts of imitators.
Beyond the shocking and exhilarating displays of action in Peckinpah’s films, are strong consistent themes and preoccupations. Peckinpah examines time and time again the psyches of men of violence, whether they be outlaws, lawmen, CIA assassins, or a simple teacher pushed to his limit. The characters in these films are complex, often unsympathetic, usually old, and played by a succession of great character actors and stars of real presence.
Peckinpah in his life and his art was interested in individuals, iconoclasts, and rebels. This was something that he practiced as well as preached, often at great cost both in his personal life and career. Only Orson Welles comes to mind as a truly great American director so badly treated by the studio system, all though to be fair Peckinpah did as much as anyone to make life difficult for himself.
For more background on this great director I recommend David Weddle’s great biography ‘If They Move…. Kill ‘Em!’
Cross of Iron is the directors’ last masterpiece, amazingly he turned down serious offers to make King Kong and Superman to travel to Europe and make a second world war film in which the heroes were German with a producer whose experience lay in porn. Although the finished film was a hit in Europe, it sank without a trace in the US.
Set on the Russian front during the German retreat, Cross of Iron follows a platoon led by the rigidly anti-authoritarian Sergeant Steiner (a magnificent James Coburn at his fiercest). Steiner’s only care is for the survival of the men under his command, he is openly contemptuous of the Nazi party. Because he is a brilliant guerrilla soldier Steiner’s rebelliousness is tolerated by the humane Colonel Brandt (Mason) and the cynical Captain Keisel (David Warner in one of his finest roles).
When new commander Captain Stransky (Schell, filling out an outstanding cast) arrives at the front Steiner’s contempt for authority and unbending personal code bring them into direct conflict. Stransky is a Prussian aristocrat obsessed with winning the Iron Cross (the German Army’s top commendation for valour) and he will stop at nothing to get it including taking credit for the actions of a dead officer in repelling a Russian advance. Steiner doesn’t give a shit about medals “why do you want it so badly? It’s just a worthless piece of metal” but irritated by the Prussians claim of class superiority refuses to back his report. With only Steiner’s word between him and his prize, Stransky plots to engineer Steiner’s demise, with his platoon as collateral damage.
By setting his film on the Russian front and having German protagonists, Peckinpah is able to take the gloves off and deliver a war film of stunning cynicism and despair. In a key exchange, Col. Brant wonders what they will do when Germany loses the war, Cap. Keisel replies wearily “prepare for the next one”. In an incredibly surreal sequence in a veterans’’ hospital – the only break in the film from the battlefield – a senior officer from high command visits. He attempts to shake the hand of an injured soldier, and is presented first with one arm stump then another; finally the soldier extends his foot. The sequence shows Peckinpah’s pitch black sense of humour.
Women are rarely treated well in Peckinpah’s films, which is a real weakness. But Cross of Iron is an exception. Although for obvious reasons there are not many female characters they are still significant in smaller roles. Santa Berger plays a nurse who offers Steiner a way out of the horror (of course he flees back to the front as soon as possible). In a notorious sequence Steiner’s squad encounters a Russian platoon entirely comprised of female soldiers. What follows is both horrifying and moving, and overturns the perception that wars are only fought by men. This section was always trimmed for television when the film used to play in the 80s on BBC2.
Apart from the sanatorium sequence the film is nearly two hours of constant explosions. Artillery blasts become punctuation to the dialogue, which includes regular discussions of politics, class and philosophy. The action sequences are brutal, but brilliant.
Peckinpah was promised fifteen tanks for a major sequence, when it came time to shoot it the producer had run out of money and could only supply three. You wouldn’t know this watching the film, it looks like an entire Russian tank division descends on Steiner’s men.
After the film was released and disappeared a despondent Peckinpah received a telegram from another director telling him that he had made the finest anti war film he had ever seen. The sender was Orson Welles.
Cross of Iron is ripe for rediscovery, it presents a vision of war as hellish as Saving Private Ryan, but Ryan for all its savagery is still about a just war. Peckinpah sees nothing just in war.
A version of this review was previously published on ScreenJabber.com