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
STUDIOCANAL Presents is the new streaming service from STUDIOCANAL, available now. From home-grown crowd-pleasers and world cinema greats, to acclaimed independent movies and modern and classic horror, STUDIOCANAL PRESENTS offers subscribers access to a wealth of exceptional film and series from its renowned and world-spanning library. A variety of new titles will launch on the channel every month, many of which can’t be streamed anywhere else in the UK. Fans can sign up via an Apple TV-compatible device for a seven-day free trial and subscribe directly to STUDIOCANAL PRESENTS for £4.99 a month. STUDIOCANAL PRESENTS is available through the Apple TV app on iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, iPod touch, Mac, popular smart TVs from Samsung, LG, Sony, VIZIO, TCL, and others, Chromecast with Google TV, Roku and Amazon Fire TV devices, and PlayStation and Xbox consoles.