Cross Of Iron (Sam Peckinpah 1977) – Blu-ray review
Sam Peckinpah’s only war movie, a cult classic, makes its Blu-ray debut next Monday (6th June) from Optimum Releasing. Decent extras include an extensive making of documentary, Passion and Poetry: Sam Peckinpah’s War.
Cross of Iron
(Sam Peckinpah, US/Ger, 1977)
When you’re losing the war, what else is there to believe in but nihilism? Peckinpah’s cowboy code faces its sternest test amongst the Nazis
War movies are usually directed by the winners. Rephrase that, to specify Second World War movies directed by Americans, and ‘usually’ becomes ‘virtually always.’ The virtually is there because of the rare exceptions, one of which is Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron: the story of a German regiment losing against the Russians and marooned in a muddy quagmire with nothing to fight for beyond survival.
Check the date this was made, and you’re probably thinking, “this is about Vietnam, isn’t it?” To some extent, yes, but by presenting Germans as the good guys Peckinpah explodes accepted notions of heroism far beyond the topsy-turvy morality of America’s involvement in Indochina: this is a film where we’re rooting (if that’s the word) for guys who have portraits of Hitler in their bunkers. Crucially, those, with few exceptions these are no Nazi ideologues but Wehrmacht regulars, career soldiers fighting a cause they don’t believe in – exactly the position of many Marines sent to Vietnam.
“The only code left for Sam Peckinpah’s disillusioned Nazi soldiers in Cross of Iron is the same one which united The Wild Bunch….”
In his own perverse way, Peckinpah wryly charts the problems that any army faces: ineffective leaders, pampered and cowardly glory-hunters, and the deranged, couldn’t-give-a-fuck foot soldiers who might actually help win the odd skirmish. With little left to believe in (politics, religion, military protocol and even personal hygiene get a kicking here), the only code left is the same one which united The Wild Bunch. You look after the men you fight and die with. That’s it. The result is an astonishingly nihilistic film, in which the odd shaft of tenderness should be grasped with both hands because it’s so rare and fleeting.
Inevitably, a film this bleak borders on being a comedy, with Maximilian Schell hysterical as the bullshit artist hoping to be rewarded for valour without so much as getting his hands dirty. Cowering from explosions, backtracking from orders, he’s something out of Blackadder – but in contrast James Coburn’s Steiner is ice-cool and deadly serious, a madman rendered sane by putting a Luger in his hand. Their duel is fascinating, a very Peckinpah story of principles betrayed and honour avenged, which is expertly plotted as high-stakes farce. James Mason and David Warner provide much needed class as a two-man Greek chorus, decent men whose code of honour has been so annihilated by war that all they can do is hope Steiner wins the petty but highly symbolic war of his own.
The only misstep is an encounter with a platoon of Russian women soldiers, where Peckinpah tries to highlight Steiner as a man of principle by comparing him to the rapists in his squadron. Ass with Straw Dogs, the whole thing feels queasily exploitative and unnecessary, with Peckinpah’s leering camerawork complicit in crimes which, in theory, he’s criticising.
Otherwise, it’s a film notable for pushing Peckinpah’s exceptional eye for action into untrammelled rage. Forget the blood-splattered glory Peckinpah achieved in his Westerns. This time, there is zero glamour: the mud-stained colour palette is drained of life, the actors’ faces stinking with sweat and soil. Peckinpah’s trademark rhapsodic editing splices endless barrages into repetitive, senseless slaughter, and few films have shown the brutal power of tanks as well as this.
Theoretically, the only respite comes when an injured Steiner gets R&R in a hospital, but Peckinpah maintains the dislocatory editing even here. As Steiner witnesses a general trying to shake hands with an armless paraplegic, Peckinpah delivers a surreal, hallucinatory vision of concussion and the madness of inactivity that makes you long for the light relief of the battlefield. For a man like Steiner who has nothing left, the ruthless honesty of combat is preferable to the craziness and hypocrisy of ‘peacetime.’
Thanks to Optimum for the screener.