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.
Set in 1943, the film is centred around 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 honour in battle and the dignity of the soldier (concepts no longer relevant, if they ever were) 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 – but Peckinpah uses it as a peg upon which to hang an extraordinary visual sense of the squalor and terror of battle. The scenes of ambush are rivetingly tense, using sound to superb effect, and the large scale set-pieces are choregraphed 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 the overrated Saving Private Ryan, Peckinpah’s film has an understanding of the fighting man that the more recent film totally fails to grasp. 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. 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 begin to get increasingly cynical from Pat Garrett onwards, and Steiner combines 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. 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 prostitutes 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, and it’s all the more disappointing that this proved to be his last wholly satisfactory film. He is working with John Coquillon, the cinematographer who brought such wizardry to Straw Dogs, and with three editors; indeed, the editing process took a full seven months, completed just down the hallway from where Paul Hirsch and Marcia Lucas were working on a little SF 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. But at the heart of the film is Peckinpah’s 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.
Like Convoy this is a direct transfer of the Studio Canal French R2 disc. It’s actually better than the other film, and it’s the best version of the film I’ve seen for sale in the UK. The R1, incidentally, is a travesty and should be enthusiastically pissed upon if you ever get the chance.
The picture quality is generally very good. I was concerned towards the beginning that it was too soft and lacking in detail – the opening scenes in the forest have a slightly dull edge to them – but once the film gets going the detail level improves dramatically. There is a small amount of artifacting in places and some grain is visible throughout, but overall this is very pleasing. Even better, the transfer is anamorphic 1.85:1, contrary to Warner’s pre-release information. I can’t imagine a better version of the film coming along any time soon.
The soundtrack is basic Mono, reflecting the original soundtrack of the film. It’s not bad at all, especially compared to the muddy mess of the VHS release and the genuine horror that is the R1 Hen’s Tooth version. Inevitably, it lacks range and doesn’t quite deliver the same punch as more recent war films released in DTS versions, but it’s quite adequate.
There are just a couple of extras. Some very basic filmographies – virtually complete for Peckinpah (if you don’t count his second unit work and his acting appearances) and decidedly vague for the leading actors. We also get a reproduction of the splendid cinema poster and some touching behind the scenes shots of Peckinpah.
There are 13 chapter stops, which is a bit mean, and the menu is backed by some of the music from the film.
To be honest, this film deserves the full 2 disc Special Edition treatment, but that honour seems to be reserved for over-rated “epics” by David Lean and such masterpieces of modern cinema as Independence Day. Still, at the end of the day, the joke is on the trash, because Cross Of Iron triumphs. This disc is well worth buying and if you haven’t seen the film, then what the hell are you waiting for ? This, ladies and gentlemen, is cinema. Pure and simple.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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