Cross of Iron comes to Region B-locked UK Blu-ray complete with a 1080p High Definition video rendition, presented in the movie’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 widescreen. Clearly a result of some form of restored/remastered transfer, this is easily the best that the movie has ever looked. Period. Detail is excellent throughout, with no apparent softness, and only a hint of edge enhancement, barely visible in all but a couple of scenes. DNR is non-existent, which is a huge plus point – the image retaining that glorious filmic grain which sets it apart as a product of the time and of Peckinpah’s gritty visual style. Obviously the colour scheme is fairly dreary and expectedly drained and authentically representative of the height of the war – greens and browns try their best to break free of what is almost a monochrome palette, intentionally so; the movie all the better for it. Black levels are fairly strong, although there are no memorable night moments to show off the limits of the blacks. The print, which I can only assume is (comparatively) newly-minted, has also been cleaned of all defects, blips, glitches and scratches. Overall it’s a great presentation – sure it’s not quite demo quality, but it’s not far off at all.
On the aural front we get a LPCM 2.0 track which is, as you could probably guess, front-designed. This isn’t really such a bad thing since it’s the way the material was originally designed to be presented, on the audio side of things – that said, had Peckinpah had access to more advanced six-channel sound design, you could imagine him making the most of them. Some would probably prefer an imitation 5.1 effort, but most should be perfectly content with this offering, which really does all you require for this movie. Dialogue comes across clearly and coherently throughout, irrespective of German accents that have been adopted, and the effects – replete with all the requisite battle noises of tanks firing, machine guns blaring and mortars hitting home – penetratingly hit you front and centre. There are some particularly nice touches, even without specific directionality and surround atmosphere – for example, where the sound of the mortars firing (out of context, it sounds like a harmless mechanical ‘plop’) gradually gets louder and louder, and you eventually notice the sound of them landing and exploding too. The score rings true throughout, with that expected military percussion edge that Peckinpah was familiar for even in all his non-war movies. Yes, it’s not Green Zone in terms of battle-based sound design (or even benchmark efforts like Transformers), but it was never intended to be, and this is a great presentation of the material on offer.
After Criterion dealt with Peckinpah’s other European movie, Straw Dogs, fans may have had hopes that they would get hold of the rights to this baby too. Although it was not meant to be, this particular release has already proven to have decent video and audio, and now, thanks to a host of extras created by a certain Mike Siegel, offers up serious competition to what Criterion would have to say on the matter. Siegel produced a documentary entitled Passion & Poetry: The Ballad of Sam Peckinpah, which takes four and a half hours (!!) to dissect each and every one of Peckinpah’s movies, and, for this release, I think what we get here is all the material relating to Cross of Iron culled from said production. It’s certainly a comprehensive selection.
Passion & Poetry – Sam Peckinpah's War is a recently-made 46-minute retrospective documentary, which features interviews with many of the German cast (including Vadim Glowna, Senta Berger, Katy Haber and Roger Fritz), discussing their experiences on the film – getting hired by Peckinpah, working with the temperamental legend, how the shoot went and the problems they incurred, including Peckinpah’s excessive drinking (up to 4 bottles of spirits a day, 3 of which before shooting even began!!). Whilst these bits are in German, subtitled, we also get plenty of audio-only interview snippets, not just from actors James Coburn and James Mason, but also from Sam Peckinpah himself, who, even in his brief moments, still exudes that daring, confrontational attitude that he was famous for (and Peckinpah and Coburn also get a couple of video interview clips too). There’s a short video snippet with David Warner, recorded much more recently, and all of the contributors offer up some truly interesting background information into the production (including the story behind the photo shown above). There’s plenty of talk about the conflict between Peckinpah and the German producer Hertwig (including audio samples), highlighting how uncontrollable Peckinpah was as a director, and the story about the part that he gave to his wife is quite disturbing really – one of the slapped-around-and-abused women – only further highlighting the man’s eccentricity/madness. All the while we get literally hundreds of revealing on-set stills playing out in the background, and some poor quality but compelling behind the scenes footage of the scenes actually being shot. It’s a comprehensive, thoroughly engaging accompaniment – the definitive documentary on the production; probably worth picking up this release just to see it, and it makes me want to hunt down the whole “Passion & Poetry” 270 minute feature.
On Location Interviews
Here we get 5 on-set audio interviews recorded in 1976 and produced for the 1977 promotional campaign, each presented with pretty average audio (noticeable crackling and distortion) but also plenty of wonderful behind the scenes stills playing out in the background.
Sam Peckinpah talks for 5 minutes about violence in the world – and violence in his movies; about this film – which focuses on the story of the ‘universal soldier’; about Hitler and the German war machine. Some snippets were already used in the main Documentary, but it is worth watching this for the complete interview, as well as for all of the new background photos which are truly revealing.
James Coburn spends nearly 6 minutes recounting the setting, what they were trying to depict with the movie, the themes established and what he sought to bring to his character (giving us some very interesting background into his character, who was apparently busted down to corporal after refusing to execute a POW – a bit of great trivia given the later parallels to this which were shown in the final cut). He discusses how hard it was to reverse roles and play the ‘enemy’, yet present them as still being the same as any soldier in battle, emphasising instead the horrors of war, rather than evoking any sympathy for Hitler’s war machine. Very well spoken, it’s great to hear from him, and these snippets make you wish he were still alive to record a full commentary.
James Mason gets to have his say too, talking for 6 minutes about what it was like working with Peckinpah, showering the director with a great deal of praise; discussing the part he plays in the movie and exploring his character in greater detail; whilst juxtaposing both his role and the film in general with the comparative real-life situation in the war.
Maximilian Schell has his 5 minutes of glory talking about the film as a whole – his regard to it being the first film that explores the Russian-German war; the realistic approach to the conflict (the enemies coming out of fog-strewn woods); the situation that the Germans got into and the trouble within the hierarchy – comparing and contrasting this with his character’s motivations.
David Warner gets just 3 minutes to round out these great little interview offerings, recounting briefly his experiences working with Peckinpah.
Krueger Kisses Kern is a 9-minute Featurette which has Vadim Glowna recounting a wonderful story from the filming of Cross of Iron where he suggested to Peckinpah an improvement for one of the scenes in the script – and then describing the madness that followed, where the aggressive director first railed at him, and then, eventually agreed to the change.
Letters From Vadim & Sam is a scrolling text offering which allows you to read the entire letter (the background to which is explained in the Krueger Kisses Kern Featurette) which Vadim wrote and pushed under Peckinpah’s door midway through filming. Taking some 4 minutes to read, it’s quite a forward letter and it’s not surprising Peckinpah reacted reasonably well – he probably has a strange kind of respect for a guy who would stand up and do something as presumptuous as this. We also get a nice thankyou note written whilst Peckinpah was having a disastrous time filming Convoy.
Vadim & Sam – Son & Dad has Vadim on hand once again, spending 6 minutes talking about meeting Peckinpah after the end of the filming, and being invited to a preview screening of a rough cut, which the director didn’t particularly like. He discusses how he then got into movie-making and showed Peckinpah a movie that he had filmed, explaining the slow-building reaction to it. Another nice, and really quite touching, anecdotal tale.
Cutting Room Floor takes a brief but welcome look at some of the scenes that were cut. We hear from the previous contributors how much footage was shot (enough for a movie at least twice as long) and soon find out that all that was really left of this extra footage was a small amount of poor quality video footage and some stills hinting at scenes that were filmed but never finalised. David Warner discusses how he had a much bigger part, how he was in an action sequence where his convoy is attacked by aircraft, and how his character was stripped from a combat soldier to just a desk-bound assistant. There was also another scene at the hospital between Steiner and his nurse (which the actress expands upon) and some further stills for which we get no real explanation.
Steiner in Japan offers us 2 minutes of Japanese commercials, starring Coburn and shot by Peckinpah when they travelled to Japan for the premiere of their movie. Cheesy but quite fun offerings – I couldn’t help but be reminded of Bill Murray rehearsing for his commercials in Lost in Translation.
Mike's Homemovies Featurette – Steiner meets Kiesel again takes 7 minutes to look behind the scenes at the Sam Peckinpah artwork gallery, and the host of familiar faces that attended to remember the great director – including Coburn, Steve McQueen’s wife Ali MacGraw, and David Warner. There’s a particularly nice story from Coburn and Warner about what happened on a couple of occasions on set, and, despite the poor (old-style) camcorder-quality presentation, a welcome addition.
Finally we get a selection of Trailers, including the 3-minute Original German Trailer (in German, with English subtitles) which is particularly interesting because it includes some moments – even if they are just brief shots – of scenes which never made the final cut. Yes, this is apparently the closing thing to having deleted scenes (the extra material from here discussed already in the above Cutting Room Floor featurette). Hilariously, considering how much I hate modern trailers for giving too much away and basically summing up (i.e. spoiling) the whole movie, this old trailer actually shows you a clip from the final scene!! We also get a brief 30-second US TV-spot, as well as the original 4-minute Trailer which was shown in the US and the UK.
Cross of Iron is cinematic legend Sam Peckinpah’s only war movie, a largely German production which features a star-strewn Western cast and some dramatic – and authentic – battle sequences, obviously shot in the director’s trademark slow-motion-violence way. At its core, however, it’s quite an acute study of the ‘universal soldier’, and the paradox of fighting for your country but not actually knowing what you are fighting for beyond that. Arguably one of the best anti-war movies, it still appears to be a flawed film, and even if Peckinpah, unusually, actually approved the final cut for it, it’s clear from the production history that, given the choice, he would have wanted to do things slightly differently. Still, even restrained by budget and time, he pulled off a very impressive effort, one that certainly sits proudly amidst his better efforts.
Boasting the kind of release that would almost make Criterion jealous, Optimum’s Region B-locked UK release of the movie comes complete with decent remastered video and audio, as well as a selection of truly worthy extras – the documentary alone makes this a must-buy for fans of the film. Easily besting all of the previous SD-DVD releases, this one is well worth picking up – a blind buy for those who love Peckinpah’s work, or those who appreciate a great (anti-) war movie, this package comes heartily recommended.
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