The troubled yet brilliant director Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Cross of Iron’ hit cinema screens in 1977, towards the end of a bleak decade for the West. Unusually for an English language war film, the hero is a sympathetic corporal in the notorious Nazi Wehrmacht, and the principal antagonist is a Captain on his own side. The plot echoes the world-weariness of cinema of the era, which was simply holding up a mirror to the reality of the times. George A. Romero’s cynical post-apocalyptic satire on capitalism, ‘Dawn of the Dead’, was about to be released. Alan J Pakula’s ‘All the President’s Men’ documented the Watergate scandal that brought down President Nixon and shattered the faith of the American people in the political process. It came out a year earlier.
Although set during WWII, ‘Cross of Iron’ in so many ways captures the despairing culture of the late 1970s. Director Sam Peckinpah had made a name for himself by blowing apart the western genre with ‘The Wild Bunch’. He had followed up that hit with the shocking, provocative and violent ‘Straw Dogs’. But he turned his attention to the war genre with ‘Cross of Iron’ towards the end of his career.
In many ways, a movie about the futility of war suits Peckinpah’s directorial style to the ground. He extensively uses slow-motion to graphically depict violence. Blood spurts from dying soldiers as they collapse against barbed wire. The gore straddles the margins of becoming gratuitous. If the viewer isn’t worn down by the relentless depictions of maiming and death, then they will be by the often-unremitting sound effects of artillery bombardments.
Carrying the plot amongst the many sequences of carnage is a stellar cast. It is led by James Coburn, perhaps best-remembered as one of ‘The Magnificent Seven’. His granite, lined face and pale blue eyes ensure that he is utterly convincing as Corporal Rolf Steiner. The Germans are humanised in ‘Cross of Iron’, but mostly through the burning principles of Corburn’s detached Wehrmacht officer. When his platoon captures a Russian boy, his superior officer Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell) orders the prisoner to be executed. Steiner knows that only a coward and a cad would give such a command and instead hides the boy. Later, the Germans are raided by Russian troops. Lieutenant Meyer (Igor Galo) leads a valiant defence, but is killed in the process. During this time Captain Stransky hides, overcome with fear.
When Stransky gives his report to Colonel Brandt (James Mason), he claims the credit that was due to the deceased Lieutenant Meyer, in the hope of being decorated with the cross of iron medal. He blackmails the homosexual Lieutenant Triebig (Roger Fritz) and pressures Steiner to back up his fictional account. Appalled by Stransky’s deceit and everything the entitled Prussian aristocrat stands for, Steiner refuses. Thus he sets in motion a deadly feud between the two men that it takes the rest of the film to resolve.
The conflict between Steiner and Stransky is brilliantly performed by James Coburn and Maximilian Schell. The suave Swiss actor had a fine line in playing German officers and appeared in Richard Attenborough’s epic about Operation Market Garden, ‘A Bridge Too Far’, the same year. James Mason gives his customarily insouciant performance, and the late David Warner, fresh from ‘The Omen’, is also excellent if all too fleeting as a glowering and morose German officer. On the other hand, Senta Berger is under-used as something of a love interest for Coburn. Peckinpah’s depiction of women in the film veers between two extremes, neither flattering, both lacking nuance. A later scene concerning an all-female Russian detachment owes something to the Sirens in Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’.
‘Cross of Iron’ has an incredible international cast that any other director would have envied. It also benefits from a simple and compelling plot that is given over two hours of screen time to play out. Yet in the final analysis, it doesn’t quite come together as a coherent whole. There’s a nagging feeling throughout much of the film that it ought to be better. As a viewer, it’s not an easy film in which you can lose yourself in the drama. Somehow, the artifice of filmmaking never quite recedes.
In the final analysis, it’s perhaps that the film attempts to be so unremittingly grim that it works against itself, because it ends up feeling more like propaganda than an organic story populated by real characters. It is too earnest and lacks charm. A little reading into the origins of ‘Cross of Iron’ cast some light onto why it never fully resonates. The director’s battle with alcoholism caused many production issues and even cost the film a satisfactory climax.
Nevertheless, a film by Sam Peckinpah is always worth watching, and ‘Cross of Iron’ certainly has its merits. Viewers will remember the rivalry between James Coburn and Maximilian Schell, and indeed this is the most satisfying element of the movie. The colours are vivid and the picture quality is stunningly sharp on this new 4K UHD release. Until ‘Schindler’s List’ in 1993, ‘Cross of Iron’ was probably one of the most terrifyingly brutal cinematic depictions of war. These images don’t fail to make an impression in high definition, even if the drama upon which it hinges is ultimately a bit of a curate’s egg.
Extra features on the 4K UHD release include extensive photo galleries and an audio commentary by filmmaker and film historian Mike Siegel.
Cast: James Coburn, Maximilian Schell, James Mason, David Warner, Roger Fritz, Senta Berger, Igor Galo Director: Sam Peckinpah Writer: Julius Epstein, James Hamilton, Walter Kelley Certificate: 18 Duration: 133 mins Released by: Studiocanal Release date: 31st July 2023 Buy ‘Cross of Iron’
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