Sam Peckinpah may be renowned for his stylish slo-mo violence, for his epic The Wild Bunch, and uncompromising, often controversial visions, but he has also always been plagued by production problems (including the director’s own raging battle with alcoholism) and studio interference, leaving a scarce few films by him actually true to his original vision. My favourite will always be the comparatively little-known cult classic Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, but I also love many of his other movies – from the widely acclaimed The Wild Bunch to The Getaway, from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid to Cross of Iron – with a few others also coming close, and certainly marking examples of his undeniable talent.
Many Peckinpah fans regard the semi-auto-biographical Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia as being Peckinpah’s last, great, untouched work, his subsequent movies increasingly suffering from studio interference. The last ten years of his life were also a mess because of his personal issues, and indeed, he would only make four more films. The mismanaged The Killer Elite (not to be confused with the upcoming Clive Owen / Jason Statham / De Niro film of the same name) marked the director’s discovery of – and subsequent overdose on – cocaine, and resulted in being an entertaining enough B-movie actioner, but one which simply wasn’t good enough to warrant the Peckinpah name. Convoy was his biggest success, but has never been all that highly regarded by critics or fans, and The Osterman Weekend, his final film, which was ripped apart by the studios, and panned largely as a result of that.
But back in 1975, just after finishing The Killer Elite, Peckinpah was still famous enough to be given the opportunity to direct both Superman and King Kong. I suppose it could have been a turning point in his career, rather than a continuous downward spiral, but who knows? Instead of taking either of these projects, he travelled to Yugoslavia to shoot a German production – his first and only war movie – Cross of Iron.
“Do you believe in God?”
“I believe God is a sadist. But probably doesn’t even know it.”
It’s 1943 and we’re full throttle into the Soviet-German element of World War II, a period at the peak of the war where Soviet forces – despite sacrificing many lives themselves; and, despite facing a better-trained, better-equipped and better-led army – would, with the favour of the harsh winter weather, decimate and drive off the encroaching German element in much the same way that Napoleon was defeated a century earlier. Many of the integral battles during this period took place in the Caucasus area, the front-line troops taking heavy punishment from the Soviets, forcing the surviving few to continually retreat.
Amidst the best of the soldiers on deployment there is Corporal Steiner, a highly respected veteran fighter who has seen the horrors of war first-hand, and is tired of it all – but is still simply the best at what he does. He’s also not just respected by his men only: having saved the life of a certain Colonel Brandt he has the ear of the higher echelons. But when a new Captain is assigned to command him, Steiner’s tolerance is pushed to the limits. You see, Captain Stransky has but one goal – he wants to win the coveted Iron Cross, and has fought hard to get a transfer to the front line just so he can get hold of one and make his aristocratic Prussian family proud. Taking unnecessary risks with the men under his command, and, ultimately, taking the credit for a successful counterattack on the Russian offensive movement, Stransky will do anything it takes to get the award – and the only thing in his path is Steiner.
As noted, the production of this particular Peckinpah movie went down the route of many of his other mismanaged works – running out of budget and over schedule; plagued by the director’s own bad influence (rampant alcoholism and rewrites of the script) and not quite ending up as originally intended. Apparently even the authentic military vehicles and weaponry required for the shoot didn’t arrive on time, delaying filming and leaving not enough time to shoot the original ending. I have no idea how this would have quite turned out, but I do know that the ending shot was completed in just one day, and, knowing this, you can tell from the end result that things are a bit abrupt.
Which is not saying that Cross of Iron is a bad movie by any means – indeed it has been rightly lauded as one of the best anti-war movies of all time. It was inspiration for Tarantino’s wrongly marketed Inglourious Basterds – although one has to wonder whether Tarantino also borrowed ideas from the lacklustre sequel to Cross of Iron, which involved none of the main cast or crew, but included some ideas that are very Basterds-esque. Indeed, Cross of Iron was a hauntingly harrowing depiction of what it might have really been like on the front line, getting to the very heart of how these soldiers, and indeed any soldiers, may have felt fighting for their country but not really knowing the real reasons why they are out there beyond the principle of the matter. The utter futility of war; the lives lost; the women and children sacrificed – it’s all covered here, wrapped up in the standard, classy Peckinpah-stylised package. Furthermore, I think that this is a surprisingly personal film for the late, great, outspoken director. Sure, some would argue that all of his films were very personal, but here his narrative, whilst obviously being ostensibly all about the war and the horror of war, is actually an analogy for his experiences in the movie business – each film he makes is like a little battle, his incendiary personality making every single production an uphill struggle against the odds. Perhaps he infused all of his films with an air of this, but the specific narrative in Cross of Iron draws several direct references to Peckinpah’s own little private ‘wars’, without, for a second, belittling the poignant anti-war message that it is truly trying to get across.
James Coburn is on top form as the lead character, Corporal Steiner, putting in what many regard as the best performance of his career. Personally, I didn’t have any issues with the German-ish accent that he attempted, and think that it’s perfectly fine that his inimitable, gruff Coburn-edge comes through irrespective of the purposeful lilt. What’s important is that he perfectly encapsulates the reluctant warrior – an unstoppable tool in the war machine, and yet one that is not without a heart. He will serve his country until he dies – it’s all he knows – but that doesn’t mean that he understands why the hell they are there in the first place; why so many have to die for seemingly no reason. And it doesn’t mean he has to respect the men that bark orders and throw away the lives of those around him in the name of ‘glory’. For the sake of a medal.
Maximilian Schell also fares well as the arrogant but ultimately cowardly Prussian aristocrat, Captain Stransky, who is transferred to command the units, including Steiner’s. Brutal and unflinching in his quest for his prize, his ambition literally knows no bounds – he’s content to take the credit for an act of bravery committed by a fallen comrade just to get his damn medal. There’s a great scene where Schell notes that one of his men is homosexual, and it perfectly encapsulates the Machiavellian manipulation that buzzes through his brain almost instantaneously – using the knowledge as leverage against the man and twisting it in his own favour mere seconds after coming across like he condoned the behaviour. He simply doesn’t understand why Steiner wants to get in his way – he doesn’t get what it takes to actually ‘win’ a medal, beyond barking inane orders and throwing lives away.
Peckinpah was always renowned for instilling his own personality into the characters that he brought to life (never more so than in Warren Oates’ lead character for Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia) but here I think he is actually present in two roles – both leads. Coburn’s Steiner represents the gruff anti-establishment rebel in Peckinpah, who believes that he knows what is right, but is consistently compelled to take part in things beyond his control – he’s happy to tell his superiors that he hates them, and doesn’t care about the consequences in his behaviour; whereas Schell’s Stransky, I would like to think, and perhaps even unknowingly, represents the elements about Peckinpah that he knew were character flaws – from his views on women to his wreckless abandon showed towards those seemingly below his station.
“Men can get along without women easily. Easily. I tell you a man's true destiny is not just breeding children, all this childbirth and chocolate, but to be free. To rule and to fight. In other words: to lead a man's existence. Women are no more than a nuisance. Sometimes necessary.”
Rounding out the cast we get a typically staunch and proper James Mason, as the Colonel, coldly dispatching his men on futile, practically suicide missions – not with the same ambition as Stransky, but instead with a perfected loyalty to the Fuehrer and his every whim. Mason doesn’t get to put a great deal of depth into the character, although some nice lines towards the end certainly develop him beyond merely the standard ‘chief’ role. There’s also a young and underused David Warner playing the Colonel’s assistant – it’s an odd part because his lines don’t always run smoothly with what we know from the character, and this becomes more understandable once you realise that the biggest cuts made to the movie involved seeing his character actually participating in the action, and having much greater development. Still, as with the fact about the shot-in-one-day ending, if you didn’t know Warner’s part was abbreviated, you would likely not really notice anything other than a niggling sense that something wasn’t quite right about his role.
Still, it’s a great cast, peppered with a few female contributors (who were almost universally treated in the usual Peckinpah style – slapped, beaten, raped and killed – including even his own wife!), and bulked up by German actors who also do well in their respective roles. In fact, the whole authenticity of the production helped a great deal. Sure, the equipment may have turned up late, causing no end of problems, but the very fact that they were able to get a hold of real World War II tanks makes a huge difference to the production. With Peckinpah at the helm, the grand battle scenes are made even more real, bringing the battles home into your living room in a way that was neither attempted in other movies, nor could be accomplished in this day and age without use of CG. Even the guns were the real deal, and it’s these kinds of touches – beyond just getting the damn uniforms correct – which make this comparatively low budget production so much more special.
At the end of the day, even if there was a different, longer ending planned; and even if some regard the ending that was shot in one day as being somewhat abrupt and anticlimactic, I think that the one used still perfectly sums up the sentiment of the whole piece – and perfectly sums up the motivations and core elements that comprise the lead characters. The echoing laugh, the gun clicking empty, the Russian child soldier appearing, and the following flash images of the innocent victims of wars – these precious few seconds encapsulate the whole story, and give real depth and resonance to the message on offer; which still boils down to basically the utter futility of war.
Cross of Iron is a powerful, poignant war film, which goes beyond being just another violent slo-mo-infused Peckinpah actioner, and instead gets to the heart of the conflict by focussing on the motivations of the men in battle. Sure, the acclaimed director may have indeed taken a similar approach in many of his other projects – most notably the embittered veterans of The Wild Bunch – but here it is the very crux of the narrative, much more important than any of the admittedly impressive battle set-pieces that he pulls off across the duration. Poignant but poetic, this anti-war classic will certainly give you pause for thought, and stick in your memory for all the right reasons. Recommended.
“What will we do when the war is over?”
“Prepare for the next one.”
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