Cross of Iron (1977)
Sam Peckinpah made a name for himself with ultra-violent movies about groups of tough guys in bloody conflicts and with gritty World War 2 adventure Cross of Iron he certainly stuck to his tried and tested formula. The director is best known for his classic Westerns such as Major Dundee and The Wild Bunch, and this, his only war film, is arguably unjustifiably overlooked. In recent years however, with young directors such as Quentin Tarantino expressing their admiration of the movie (the film provides the clear template for Tarantino’s own bombastic war movie Inglorious Basterds), Cross of Iron has experienced something of a resurgence.
Set during the Second World War, the film follows a respected but war-weary Sergeant Steiner, played by James Coburn in full on gnarled and weather-beaten mode. He and his loyal platoon of German troops are deep in Russian territory and are facing a continuous onslaught by the circling Red army. An aristocratic Prussian Captain Stansky arrives to take control of the outfit and the arrogant officer is clearly hungry for medals but unwilling to put himself in any danger. Naturally, he and Steiner clash from the off. After the platoon fends off a vicious Russian assault, Stransky wrongly takes credit and names Steiner as a witness. A proud Steiner refuses to cooperate however and thus throws Stransky’s Iron Cross award into doubt. When the Russians attack again, Stransky deliberately fails to relay the order of retreat to Steiner’s platoon. The small band is then isolated amongst the Russian troops and must fight their way back to German lines.
From the outset, Cross of Iron is unashamedly a staunchly anti-war film. The pain and suffering caused by conflict constantly surrounds the troops and it is pressed home that despite these being German soldiers, they are still human beings who are fighting to survive and get home to their loved ones. Much like Das Boot or All Quiet on the Western Front, it is slightly strange to find yourself on the side of the Germans in a war film, but Peckinpah was never aiming to produce a film that was filled with patriotic fervour and analysed the causes behind the war. In Cross of Iron he attempts to show the horrors of war experienced by the regular low-level soldiers regardless of their side. Steiner is a Non-Commissioned Officer and he and his men are at all times at the mercy of their military betters. These are not ardent Nazis at all, and at one stage they even ridicule a loyal party member who is sent to join their platoon with the clear remit to keep an eye on them.
There’s a famous quotation by a German officer during the First World War who after witnessing the seemingly pointless slaughter of wave after wave of British troops at the Battle of the Somme said “nowhere have I seen such lions led by such lambs.” It is this anti-authoritarian mentality that is running throughout Cross of Iron. The brave and battle-hardened troops who do the dying and the fighting are merely afterthoughts to the high-ranking officers who duck combat wherever possible and reap the benefits of power while the men suffer. Stransky is a self-confessed aristocrat, and he comes to symbolise the inept and uncaring ruling class who send men to their slaughter without a second thought.
During one scene at a convalescing hospital, whilst Steiner is receiving treatment for wounds he suffered from the first Russian attack, the wounded are visited by a high-ranking officer. The hospital lay on an elaborate spread of food and drink, but after a cursory chat to a few jaded and tired soldiers, the officer orders the wine and meat to be moved into the private dining room, leaving only raw vegetables for the wounded men. This one scene not only encapsulates the message of class conflict and lions led by lambs that Peckinpah wished to convey, but also proves to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for Steiner who from that point on loses faith completely in his own army.
It’s a powerful and violent movie and it does definitely hit home with its anti-war message. There’s a telling exchange between two officers towards the film’s climax as one asks “What will we do when we have lost the war?” His superior calmly replies “prepare for the next one”. You certainly get the sense that Peckinpah meant this to apply not only to the German officers but to mankind itself and its thirst for war. A final photo montage of civilians suffering during the Second World War and other subsequent conflicts is set over the closing credits to good effect.
It may not quite be to everyone’s taste however as, in classic Peckinpah style, the film does ramp up the blood and violence and doesn’t worry too much about its plot. There are a lot of explosive battle scenes and lengthy shoot-outs, which can almost get a little tiring as there are only so many shots of shells exploding next to flailing soldiers that anyone can take. For anyone who likes war films however it is a definite forgotten classic that sits neatly as a companion piece with Kubrick’s Paths of Glory.
Cross of Iron has been restored for blu-ray and is released 6th June 2011.
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Stars: James Coburn, Maximilian Schell, James Mason
Runtime: 132 min
Country: UK, West Germany