Cross of Iron Review
“It’s all an accident, an accident of hands. Mine, others, all without mind, from one extreme to another, but neither works nor will ever. Yet we stand here in the middle of no man’s land. Me and You.”
When Sam Peckinpah made Cross Of Iron in 1976, he was probably not aware that it was the last time he would exercise anything remotely like creative control over one of his films. But this magnificent war film was the final chance that the greatest American director of his generation would have to deliver the film that he wanted to make, even if the critics and audiences didn't want to see it.
Peckinpah’s career had been in free fall since the success of The Getaway in 1972. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid may now be considered a something of a masterpiece but, at the time, most critics shunned it, and audiences showed no interest whatsoever. Critical dismissal turned to outright condemnation with Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, another film that time has been very kind to, and the minor success of his jaunty fantasy action flick The Killer Elite did little to revive his reputation. The main problem was Peckinpah’s reputation for being impossible to work with – not only the drugs, the booze and the violent temper but the difficulty he had in compromising with producers and studios. His concessions on The Killer Elite, agreeing to turn in a PG rated film by toning down the violence himself, seemed to go unnoticed, so Sam’s attempt on that film to be a ‘good boy’ was largely in vain.
Cross Of Iron was a change of scene for him, away from Hollywood and into the arms of Wolf Hartwig, a successful German producer of pornography who was looking for a respectable project. It was an Anglo-German production with money from EMI, the company who subsequently co-financed Convoy, by which time Peckinpah’s involvement with cocaine had become ruinous. Set in 1943, Cross Of Iron centres on the lengthy German retreat from Russia and deals with one platoon under heavy bombardment from surrounding Soviet troops. The officers, Colonel Brandt (Mason) and Captain Kiesel (Warner), are all too aware that defeat is inevitable and are simply trying to get out of the war alive. Their only hope is the bravery of Corporal Steiner (Coburn). Steiner is cynic with no illusions about his own unimportance in the scheme of things; his only belief is in survival and his only loyalty is to the men under his command. He loathes his country, his superior officers and, ultimately, himself. Matters are not improved with the arrival from France of Captain Stransky (Schell), a Prussian aristocrat whose head is filled with delusions about war and who possesses the burning desire to win the Iron Cross. Stransky and Steiner take an immediate dislike to each other and the new officer discovers that Steiner may be a bigger obstacle to his desire for a medal than the ever advancing Russian army.
This basic plotline is familiar from a hundred films - Fort Apache for one – as we watch a brusque newcomer shake up a demoralised unit. But Peckinpah uses this situation as a peg upon which to hang an extraordinary visual sense of the squalor and terror of battle. The foot-soldiers, half-starved and terrified, are living in dilapidated quarters and the officers, no matter how they might like to think they are civilised Prussians, aren’t much better off. Class divisions are sardonically examined as Stransky’s assumptions about life which have been based on his place in society all come crashing down about his ears. He still believes in the honour of war and the nobility of soldering as a profession, concepts which seem antediluvian in the Russian wastelands of 1943. He believes that his aristocratic blood gives him the right to be a commanding officer whereas Steiner demonstrates that lineage doesn’t mean a damn when it comes down to butchering your fellow human beings. This is, of course, another Hollywood metaphor from the great Hollywood maverick; the studios and producers are the Stranskys, sitting there with their bottles of vintage wine and cigars while the directors are the poor bastards who have to go out and do the dirty work.
The scenes of ambush are rivetingly tense, using sound to superb effect, and the large scale set-pieces are choreographed with great precision. The scenes with the three (somewhat derelict) tanks are particularly impressive. Mostly shot in Zagreb, the film has a visual sense of men at war that has rarely been equalled, certainly not in American cinema. It's not just the bullets and blood, it's the look of the men; lined, tired, desperate and, somehow, heartbreakingly frail and human. Tom Hanks and Matt Damon wouldn't last five minutes in this company, and for all Spielberg's brilliant pyrotechnics in Saving Private Ryan, Peckinpah's film has an understanding of the fighting man that the more recent film totally fails to grasp – Clint Eastwood’s film Flags of Our Fathers gets a bit closer. By concentrating on the German army, it has a freshness of perspective; these men aren't concerned with patriotism or the Nazi ideal, they're just living from day to day. Steiner despises the German government as much as everything else; pointing out in one memorable speech that political extremism simply doesn't work and is against basic human decency. In Peckinpah’s despairing view of the Russian front, a totalitarian regime that makes total war on its enemies is fighting another totalitarian regime that sees nothing wrong in using women and children as cannon fodder. The savage irony of the film is unyielding - the scene where the Russian boy prisoner being released being a good example - as is the basic plot logic which eventually joins Steiner and Stransky together in the only course of action they can agree on; a desperate attempt to survive, with Steiner sardonically offering to show his Captain, "where the Iron Crosses grow".
Steiner is the archetypal latter-day Peckinpah hero; tough, harsh, immovable and ever so slightly melancholic. Peckinpah's heroes have often been cynics – though not always as Cable Hogue demonstrates - and Steiner combines Pat Garrett's sense of the absurdities of human nature with the existential aimlessness of Benny in Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia. James Coburn was the perfect choice, and he gives one of his finest performances, dominating every scene he appears in with ease. He's matched by Maximillian Schell, an actor who has given so many hammy performances that it's quite a shock to be reminded of how good he can be with decent material. James Mason has just the right benevolence as the ageing, tired Colonel and David Warner, a Peckinpah veteran, is underused but fun as the disillusioned Kiesel – when asked what he’ll do after the war he replies, “Get ready for the next one.” The supporting cast, most of them unfamiliar European actors, are a fine collection of tough guys chosen as much for their look as anything else. Typically, the women play second fiddle, although Senta Berger makes an impression as a nurse and a group of Russian women found in a shack make a very definite feminist statement as they deal out a well deserved fate to the only Nazi in the company.
Peckinpah's control is supreme here, despite a long and difficult production, and it's all the more disappointing that this proved to be his last wholly satisfactory film. He is comfortable working with John Coquillon, the cinematographer who became his DP of choice after he ended his collaboration with Lucien Ballard, and Coquillon’s particularly wizardly for photographing harsh, bleak landscape is well used here. The editing was done by three people – Michael Ellis, Tony Lawton and Murray Jordan – and it is spectacular. Their editing process took a full seven months, completed just down the hallway from where Paul Hirsch and Marcia Lucas were working on a little film called Star Wars. The film is slightly flawed - the middle hospital section detracts from the intensity of the scenes at the front, and there is a dream sequence that looks like a Ken Russell parody. The dialogue is also sometimes rather odd – I love the quotation which comes at the beginning of this review but it doesn’t seem to connect to the rest of the film. Indeed, the screenplay is somewhat problematic, proceeding in an episodic fashion which betrays the script problems – Julius J. Epstein, who receives the primary credit, had all his work re-written by James Hamilton and Walter Kelley. But the problems don’t matter because at the heart of the film is Peckinpah's rational and clear-headed view that war is an absurd, sick joke that dehumanises the men that perpetuate it. As the final scenes demonstrate, the only possible response to this madness, other than hopeless despair, is hysterical laughter. Along with Klimov's Come and See, this is the best war film of the past thirty years, and certainly one of Peckinpah's masterpieces.
Cross Of Iron has been re-released in the UK as part of Optimum’s War Collection and was also released as a standalone disc last month. The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer is a strong one with a high level of detail and muted, realistic colours which reflect the intentions of John Coquillon. There’s a fair amount of grain on display but this isn’t excessive and the only major problem is some artifacting here and there during the misty and smoky scenes, particularly towards the beginning. The Dolby 2.0 Mono soundtrack is clear and crisp without being a spectacular experience – it reflects the original theatrical presentation and is best played loud.
There are no extra features whatsoever nor are there any subtitles.
The R1 Special Edition has a good transfer and also a commentary from Stephen Prince which, annoying as it often is, has considerable merit. Fans of the film might be better directed to this American release but newcomers should be well satisfied with Optimum’s disc.