Cross of Iron, the only war film that Sam Peckinpah made, is an examination of the relationships between soldiers under heavy pressure. It explodes periodically with choreographed, bloody violence, and it is a war film with a distinctly anti-war message, painting a negative picture of authority within the German army during the Second World War.
Peckinpah’s stock had fallen considerably in Tinseltown by the late 70s. Prior to Cross of Iron two of his films (Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) bombed, and another (The Killer Elite) performed well at the box office but was critically panned. Pat Garrett… came in $1.6 million over budget, and Peckinpah’s alcoholism and drug abuse had spiralled out of control. During filming of The Killer Elite he overdosed on cocaine and had to be fitted with a second pacemaker. Despite being a notoriously difficult character to work with, he still commanded enough respect to be offered two films that would become huge blockbuster successes in the mid-to-late 1970s: King Kong and Superman. He turned both down to concentrate on Cross of Iron.
James Coburn stars as the heroic, well-respected Corporal (later Sergeant) Steiner, a soldier who commands the respect of his men but shows little of it to his own immediate superiors. Steiner’s loyalty to Hitler and the German army has all but disappeared. His new captain is an aristocratic bully named Stransky (Maximilian Schell) who boasts that he specifically asked to be transferred from France to the Russian front line despite the fact that the Wehrmacht are all but beaten in Russia, retreating westward. Stransky makes no bones about the fact that his intention is to win the coveted Iron Cross medal so that he can return to his family as a hero.
Steiner is suspicious of Stransky from the off. At their first meeting Stransky orders Steiner to shoot a young captured Russian prisoner; when Steiner refuses Stransky is about to kill the boy until another soldier intervenes. Steiner later frees the boy, but the Russian soldier is accidentally shot by his own advancing troops. As the Russians attack, Stransky cowers in his bunker while Steiner helps lead a successful counter-attack with Lieutenant Meyer (Igor Galo). Meyer dies and Steiner is injured in the ensuing fight.
After a period of recuperation Steiner decides to return to the front line, where he discovers that Stransky has taken claim for the counter-attack in a bid to win the Iron Cross. His claim is backed up by Lieutenant Triebig, a passive commander blackmailed by Stransky, who has discovered that he is conducting a homosexual affair with another officer. Steiner, however, refuses to corroborate Stransky’s claim. When Colonel Brandt (James Mason) orders the evacuation of all German troops, Stransky decides not to notify Steiner’s platoon, abandoning them as the Russian army closes in. Steiner is left to fight his way out and back to safety.
A joint Anglo-German production, largely filmed in Yugoslavia, it exceeded its budget of $6,000,000 and Peckinpah had to put in $90,000 of his own money to get it finished. The crew completely ran out of funds before the end of the shoot, and both Coburn and Schell were forced to improvise the ending, which had to be completed in twelve hours. According to actor Vadim Glowna, Peckinpah was drinking four whole bottles of whisky or vodka a day while filming, surviving on less than four hours’ sleep per night. Still, the director managed to finish the film and though it was ignored in a summer completely dominated by the release of Star Wars, it performed well abroad, especially in West Germany.
The film alternates between long, dialogue-heavy scenes inside bunkers and brutal, balletic and fast cut action sequences. While the former are adequate enough, the film really comes alive when the two armies are battling. Blood spurts from bodies, shells explode and soldiers fly through the air in slow motion. It is both disorientating and intoxicating, managing to make the war look horrific but daring us to be entertained by the violence at the same time. The influence of this and other Peckinpah films on John Woo and Quentin Tarantino is clear. Whole sequences of Inglorious Basterds, for example, could be described as Sam Peckinpah crossed with Looney Tunes. In fact I will describe it as that: it’s like Sam Peckinpah crossed with Looney Tunes. The hand-held cameras used in Cross of Iron also influenced Steven Spielberg, who achieved a similar look with Saving Private Ryan, the film many believe to be the most accurate representation of Second World War close quarter fighting ever made.
The director balances these two sides of the film well. Though he was (and still is) celebrated for his action sequences, there is much more to Peckinpah and much more to Cross of Iron; the Second World War provides the perfect context for his slowly-building crescendos of violence, but the sequences inside the bunkers are easily as important as those that depict the fighting outside. The scenes that deliver the film’s anti-war message are not the ones that contain the explosions and the frenetic action of warfare – it is delivered during the moments in-between. It’s a film that shows an army at breaking point, dispensing with the boy’s-own adventure stylings favoured by several hack directors looking for commercial war film success in the 1970s, leaving you in no doubt about the grim conditions soldiers faced. It addresses how relationships and command structures function (or capitulate) under intense pressure. Coburn and Schell handle their roles impressively, the former cold and impassive in one of his best performances, the latter calculating and quietly threatening. Great support comes from Mason and David Warner as two Colonels who have simply had all they can stomach, mentally exhausted from three long years of fighting in Russia, albeit away from the front line.
Peckinpah includes some extraordinary sequences in the film. When Steiner is injured, a series of fast cuts jump back and forth through time, alternately depicting him on the battlefield as a shell explodes nearby and wandering around a hospital while recuperating. While in the hospital, Steiner’s state of shock is superbly realised during an afternoon tea dance. Peckinpah plays with our notions of what is real and what is not by having the character both mistakenly and accurately identify colleagues from the battlefield. He sees himself from afar in his own wheelchair and, at one point, all the characters that appear in shot suddenly disappear from the scene. There is an implication that Steiner is not mentally altogether when he returns to battle, which is supported by some of his actions as the pressure upon him builds. This helps to make some sense out of the film’s strange ending, an abrupt halt soundtracked by Steiner’s manic laughter. Did Steiner actually recover properly? Has he gone insane? It appears that the war has finally broken him, and as Stransky fumbles inexpertly with his weapon, Steiner cares not if he lives or dies at this point. As the German children’s song ‘Hänschen Klein’ plays, the film ends with a quote from Bertolt Brecht: ‘Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.’ (‘Hänschen Klein’ also opens the film. Translating as ‘Little Hans’, it is a 19th Century folk song that was taught to German children at kindergarten. Originally it told the story of a boy who travelled the world and came back a man. Note how it fits with the experiences of both Steiner and Stransky. According to Wikipedia, in the German dubbed version of 2001: A Space Odyssey the HAL 9000 computer sings ‘Hänschen Klein’ (instead of ‘Daisy Bell’) while being deactivated.)
While at the hospital Steiner also witnesses a General greet a wounded soldier, in a famous scene that sums up the movie’s attitude to the war and authority. The soldier holds up one stump where his left arm used to be when the General attempts to shake his hand. Embarrassed, the General looks for the soldier’s other hand, only for another stump to be revealed. The soldier ends up extending his leg – an undamaged limb – for the General to shake, but the embarrassed senior officer departs hastily, more interested in the food that is available than in conversing any further. Orson Welles telephoned Peckinpah after seeing the film to praise its anti-war sentiment.
Some critics have complained that at times it feels as though the explosions in Cross of Iron will never stop, but surely the truest war films are those that actually put the casual viewer in such an uncomfortable position. In this case Peckinpah unflinchingly forces the viewer to imagine what life on the Crimean front line must have been like for German soldiers.
That said, there is an awful lot of cannon fodder in the film. It’s an unfortunate consequence of Peckinpah’s influence that the masses of slow-mo bodies flying through the air actually brings to mind 1980s Saturday night mainstream TV as much as anything else that has come since; it’s occasionally like watching an old episode of The A-Team (although with the notable exception that in Cross of Iron people do actually die). ‘Heresy!’ scream the Peckinpah fans, but it’s not too much of an exaggeration. For its time, though, Cross of Iron is brutally violent, aeons away from those Roger Moore vehicles that appeared during the same period like Escape to Athena and The Wild Geese. It also seems worlds apart from a clever, post-hippie anti-war film like Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, recalling the disillusionment of Gillo Pontecorvo’s La Battaglia di Algeri. It may look at a different war, but it delivers its clear message confidently, and just as strongly.
Directed by: Sam Peckinpah
Written by: Julius J. Epstein, James Hamilton, Walter Kelley
Starring: James Coburn, Maximilian Schell, James Mason, David Warner
Running Time: 127 Minutes