Sam Peckinpah’s Cross Of Iron by Ian Johnston
Reissued on Blu-ray on 13th June and screening at selected cinemas from 17th June, Ian Johnston looks back at one of the best anti-war films ever made.
By the mid-1970’s, Sam Peckinpah, like the renegade characters he so brilliantly delineated in his masterpiece western The Wild Bunch (1969), was a man who had outlived his era. His standing in Hollywood had plummeted to new depths, and his status as a maverick director who would wage war on producers and drive his films way over budget ”â coupled with a reputation as a prodigious consumer of alcohol and cocaine ”â had made him a virtual pariah in the Los Angeles film community. Worse still, his totally misunderstood and utterly distinctive pictures Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid (1973) and Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia (1974) had lost money at the box office.
After his attempt at a comparatively straight action film in 1975 with The Killer Elite, audiences and critics were dismissing him as a spent force. The clichÃÂ©d image of Peckinpah as a director only capable of slow-motion bloodshed was fixed, the poetic melancholy of much of his work all but forgotten. During the Vietnam War and Watergate, the atmosphere of spiritual crisis that ran through his films mirrored the American psyche ”â but now times had changed. Audiences no longer wanted to be reminded of the grim recent past. They wanted escapist entertainment.
Steven Spielberg’s Jaws gave it to them. The multi-million dollar gross that this first event formula picture generated changed the nature of filming until the present day. Peckinpah was given the opportunity to adapt to this new style of filmmaking, when Dino De Laurentiis offered him the remake of King Kong and Ilya Salkind presented Superman at the end of 1975. But Peckinpah could not adjust. The director wanted a story with real characters with whose plight he could
The story came from an unlikely source, a German soft porn producer. Wolf Hartwig wanted to break into mainstream movie production and sent Peckinpah a copy of William Heinrich’s German World War II novel, The Cross Of Iron. Peckinpah was hooked. The result was one of the best anti-war films ever made, Peckinpah’s last great film, featuring a reflective, multi-layer performance from the wonderfully economical James Coburn.
1943: the Taman Peninsula, Russia. All along the blood-soaked Eastern Front Hitler’s troops are in full retreat from Stalin’s vengeful Red Army. The end is nigh for the Third Reich. Insubordinate Corporal Steiner (Coburn) leads a veteran German platoon behind Russian lines with deadly efficiency (“Good kill,”Â he whispers as they slit the Russian’s throats), yet he loathes the German army and all it stands for. Back at base, his sympathetic commander, Colonel Brandt (the magnificent James Mason), and his cynical, chain-smoking, dysentery-ridden adjutant Captain Kiesel (a superb David Warner) receive the vain Prussian aristocrat Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell), who has transferred to the Russian Front from a safe posting in France, in order to attempt to gain the Iron Cross. Stransky is mocked mercilessly by Kiesel: “You’re not going to drink to my health,”Â he says, “it’s not worth drinking to. The end of the war?”Â On Steiner’s return, the arrogant Stransky promotes him to sergeant, but a clash of wills is inevitable. “Everything that you are, or may become, is dependent on this present company,”Â the aristocrat tells him. “I will not forget that, sir,”Â replies the grimacing Steiner, “but may I add that a man is generally what he feels himself to be.”Â
Later, the cowardly Stransky tries to fraudulently claim that he lead a counterattack against the Russians. Survivor Steiner refuses to sign his false statement, thwarting Stransky’s claim for the Iron Cross. Neither will Steiner back up Colonel Brant’s attempt to bring disciplinary proceedings against Stransky. “You think because you are more enlightened than most officers that I hate you any less?”Â he glowers. “I hate all officers.”Â As the Russians continue to advance, Steiner’s antagonism of Stransky has fatal repercussions.
From April till July 1976, Sam Peckinpah shot the $4 million picture in northern Yugoslavia, thanks to the cheap costs of labour, studio space and materials. Hartwig, who paid for the film through his porn flicks and money advanced by distributors, produced only three rusting Russian tanks instead of the promised fifteen, but Peckinpah and crew, together with the 300 extras, managed to give the impression of an entire army. Eventually, Peckinpah would put $90,000 of his own money into the picture in order to pay many of the vital members of the crew.
Peckinpah might have been suffering from three-day blackout periods due to his heavy drinking 180-proof slivovitz, actually forgetting that he had already shot certain scenes (related in David Weddle’s perceptive Peckinpah biography, “If They Move”Â¦ Kill ”ËEm!”Â), but his unfocused, wayward condition is not overtly apparent in the finished film. Magnificently photographed by John Coquillon and edited by Tony Lawson and Michael Ellis, Peckinpah’s film devastatingly illustrates the mechanised brutality of war with choreographed quick cutting between shots running at different speeds of falling wounded men, fast zooms and overlapping sounds of hand-cranked phones blending into screams of agony, machine-gun and shell-fire. The dazzling overall effect conveys confusion, wanton destruction, futility and carnage.
Ernest Gold’s fine score is both emotive and passes ironic comment on the images, particularly during Peckinpah’s highly evocative use of actual World War II documentary footage in the opening credits. Working from a script by Casablanca screenwriter Julius J Epstein ”â extensively rewritten by the director, Korean War veteran Jim Hamilton and World War II veteran Walter Kelley ”â Peckinpah unswervingly faces the absurdity of war.
By focusing on the German aggressors ”â the villains ”â Peckinpah obliterates the possibility of celebrating any ”Ëheroic’ deeds in his war film. This is a bitter fight for survival, but the lust for war is shown to be even greater. Significantly, Nazi ideology is not directly addressed. These are regular Wehrmacht German troops and even Stransky vehemently denounces the Nazi party. Unusually for an American director, Peckinpah focuses instead on the issue of class (Cross Of Iron shares certain similarities with Robert Aldrich’s wonderful 1956 noir World War II film, Attack!). Steiner’s loathing of the odious Stransky and “all officers”Â is rooted in a furious class hatred that blinds him to the realities of the war raging around him. Having suffered shell shock, Steiner is admitted to a field hospital, where he has an affair with a nurse (Senta Berger). “Do you love the war so much?”Â she asks him as he swiftly prepares to rejoin his unit. “Or are you afraid of what you’d be without it?”Â The last question momentarily stops Steiner in his tracks. It remains unanswered.
Captain Kiesel understands that the prowess of soldiers like Steiner only prolongs the conflict: “Men like him are our last hope, and in that sense he’s a very dangerous man.”Â As the thundering Russian mortar shells rain down upon the command dugout, Kiesel shouts, “If they are the last of us, Stransky and Steiner, then God help us!”Â
In 1977, the year that George Lucas’ fantasy adventure Star Wars was also released, Peckinpah’s bleak film was completely overlooked in America and the director’s career continued its inexorable downward slide. Conversely, in Germany, Cross Of Iron became the biggest-grossing picture since the Sound Of Music and received enthusiastic critical praise across Europe. Upon seeing the picture, Orson Welles immediately cabled Peckinpah. Welles enthused that Cross of Iron was the best war film he had seen about “the ordinary enlisted man”Â since All Quiet On The Western Front.
Peckinpah’s next picture was the dire Convoy (1978), based on the novelty country and western song by CW McCall. Ironically, Convoy proved to be the biggest box office hit of his whole career but Peckinpah’s drug fuelled abhorrent behaviour on set insured that no producers would ever give him a big budget movie again.
Today, Cross Of Iron bares all the hallmarks of a real classic, which ranks with Peckinpah’s finest work. As a poignant reminder of the sheer brutal obscenity of war, it has rarely been equalled. This obviously makes Cross Of Iron compulsory viewing.
Cross Of Iron (Optimum Releasing) is out on Blu-ray on 13th June.
Cross of Iron opens at ODEON PANTON ST, LONDON on June 17th