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Cross of Iron

*****
1977

‘…representative of the pessimism that suffused the conventional war movie in the late 70’s…’

Let’s crack open another classic from the Studiocanal collection; Sam Peckinpah’s 1977 anti-war epic is an ideal candidate for HD presentation; with real locations, physical stunts and considerable verisimilitude in front of and behind the camera, it’s never looked better than it does in 2022. I first saw this in a panned and scanned, mutilated version on BBC television, and found it a bumpy ride; opinions vary as to exactly when Peckinpah’s career declined, but few have Cross of Iron down as one of his best works. But restored to a pictorial sharpness it probably didn’t have even on initial release, this adaptation of Willi Heinreich’s novel The Willing Flesh is one of the rare entries in the file of British/American films admiring German military figures, like 1971’s The Red Baron.

The man to be admired here is the resourceful, bitter Sgt Steiner, played by James Coburn in one of his last great roles; Steiner is an anti-hero, a ‘myth’ one character says,. ‘How much I hate this uniform and everything about it…’ reflects Steiner of his alienation from the Nazi cause he finds himself fighting for; the nightmare carnage around him seems to support his articulated theory that “God is a sadist’. Steiner is portrayed in direct conflict to another non-believer, Stransky, a Prussian officer played by Maxmilian Schell. Stranky has just as little interest or affection for Hitler and his cause as Steiner, but Stransky is a career soldier who is more interested in gaining the coveted Iron Cross that Steiner wears with studied disdain. ‘Stranksy will survive this war with the same land, the same wealth, the same status,’ notes one of the characters; even in times of war, we’re all just playthings of the rich.

The contrast between Steiner and Stransky is the rancid meat of Peckinpah’s film, and the script, co-written by Casablanca’s Julius J Epstein, never lets us forget it, with Steiner’s ‘Don’t call me sir’ set against Stansky’s self-important enquiry ‘Is that a salute?’ One can’t abide officiousness, the other thrives on it. When Steiner stands in the way of Stransky’s lies about his own bravery under fire, the Prussian seeks to kill Steiner’s platoon off, a plan that backfires spectacularly…There are interludes, including Steiner’s rehabilitation in a clinic with nurse Senta Berger, but there’s zero sentiment; even when Steiner rescues a child, the respite lasts less than six seconds before the kid is gunned down in the futile act of escape.

‘One of these days, the land will just swallow us up…’ says James Mason in a powerful turn as an exhausted colonel, while David Warner mumbles unhappily about his diarrheic issues; rarely has war seemed like such a mud-caked, sh*t-stained, bloody hell on earth, with Peckinpah’s dream-like slow-mo depicting grace only in the abrupt shuffling off of this mortal coil. Cross of Iron depicts ‘a world of danger, a world of men and a world without women,’ although a female platoon depicted here are quick to graphically castrate the soldiers who attempt to rape them. Such baroque side-stories do little to lighten the gloom, but that desperate mood is just right for a story about the Russian/German conflict in WWII. Peckinpah may have been descending into alcoholism and drug-abuse by 1977, but his creative sensibilities were still sharp, and Cross of Iron is, like A Bridge Too Far and Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One, representative of the pessimism that suffused the conventional war movie in the late 70’s.

About STUDIOCANAL Presents

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  1. Perfect example of film equivalent to ‘when you stare into the abyss…’ your critique convinced me to rewatch (and it’s good research for book project). Interesting segue from Willing Flesh to Cross of Iron. In another life, and if not for the advanced math skills required, I might have been a female R Langdon symbolist. The iron cross hails back to Crusades and once again, a peace symbol is turned into a bloody victory medal. I think about 40 women were given the iron cross WW2 for their bravery? Peckinpah delivers with a Pandora urn of human failings…greed, envy, brutality, lack of values, corruption, senseless violence… someone related (it might have been D Morrell/Rambo) that Peckinpah was fairly sober during filming because he had to spend nearly 100K of his own $ to make film, had little left to spend on booze, drugs? The ending was also done quickly due to lack of $.

  2. Saw this on initial release. Certainly a different perspective but war was hell regardless of nationality. Peckinpah made some odd choices but I’m not convinced he ever made a bad film. Even when he went commercial – Convoy – it was good. Even when he didn’t hit all the marks – Alfredo Garcia, Osterman – he hit enough.

  3. Also, as you are lauding Studiocanal this week I bet you’re dead excited at the following news… “StudioCanal announced during the Cannes Film Festival that Paddington 3 has set an early 2022 filming date, for some time in the second quarter of the year”. Can’t wait for that review!

    • Now, you are just trying to cause trouble! Didn’t realise that Studiocanal were financing the ongoing Paddington horror show, but maybe I can infiltrate from within and put an end to the ratty, evil-eyed little bear forever.

  4. I’m glad you have enjoyed the film. I saw it on its release. I was then and still am a major Peckinpah fan. I was distressed at his decline into booze and drugs in the late 1970s but all his films were worth watching and this was one of his best. Just two observations. My research tells me that he ditched Epstein’s script and re-worked the script with James Hamilton and Walter Kelley. The film had no American involvement apart from Peckinpah, the writers and James Coburn. It was a UK-West German production shot in Yugoslavia and although it flopped in the UK and US it was a major hit in West Germany.

    It was controversial in the US because it was seen as somehow de-Nazifying the Wehrmacht. This is not really an argument for me and neither is the charge by Stephen Prince, a Peckinpah scholar, that Peckinpah did not understand the Brecht quote that ends the film. The credits montage, a Peckinpah specialty, is chilling and uses children, much like the openings of The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs.

    It’s very sad that the film’s battles are set not far from the current fighting in Ukraine and that Peckinpah’s references to boy soldiers has proved to be so prophetic in the years since 1943.

    • I saw Straw Dogs when I was 11, and it stuck with me in a bad way. So I’m simultaneously horrified and fascinated by Peckinpah’s late career, and your comments are interesting to me. I’m never confident about identifying the nationality of a film, but that think you’re correct that the finance was European even if key talent was American. I do have the book of this, released to tie into the film’s release, and will look into how much of the story was reworked; it feels like there are some easy shots to be made at the director, shouting too much, spending too much money, but I don’t see these issues damaging the final product, which works better each time I see it. I’m a soft touch, I even like Convoy and Osterman Weekend, and I do think that Peckinpah was ahead of his time. Sadly all these anti-war films haven’t stopped these grim events being repeated…

  5. That’s another huge dark milestone of the Peckinpah’s filmo. It’s been a long time I’ve seen it. You just gave me many reason to go back to the Russian front.

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