In retrospect, it seems strange that Sam Peckinpah didn't make more war films during his career; it seems like a stage perfectly suited to his particular talents and obsessions. The director's only forays into the field of warfare were his compromised 1965 Civil War drama Major Dundee and Cross of Iron, his account of a German squadron fighting a losing battle on the Eastern Front. Peckinpah's protagonist is Sgt. Steiner (James Coburn, at his most forceful and charismatic), a tough, independent-minded soldier beloved by his men and tolerated by his occasionally exasperated superiors. One of those superiors is the aristocratic Capt. Stransky (Maximilian Schell) who has requested a transfer to the front in the hope of winning an Iron Cross for valour, but his dreams of glory don't sit well with Steiner. The grizzled Sergeant has seen enough to know that there's no glory to be had on the battlefield.
Who better to depict the inglorious nature of warfare than Peckinpah? His cinema has always been both enraptured and appalled by violence, and Cross of Iron finds him in his element. Tanks drive over half-submerged bodies in the mud, a child caught in the crossfire is riddled with bullets, wounded men display their butchered limbs at a military hospital and soldiers are blown into the sky. Much of the film's opening half-hour plays out to an incessant soundtrack of deafening explosions as Peckinpah immerses us in his hellish vision of battle. At times, it seems as if those constant detonations have thrown the story off course; Cross of Iron's narrative, adapted from Willi Heinrich's novel The Willing Flesh, is uneven and choppy. The tone of the picture is all over the place (as are the actors' accents), but this unevenness in itself turns the picture into a fascinatingly distinctive entry into the genre of World War II films.
It also allows Peckinpah to explore his primary fascination, man's cruelty to man, and Cross of Iron is very much a man's picture – indeed, one scene has Schell dreaming of "a world without women," while there are a couple of scenes in which soldiers kiss and fondle one another. Peckinpah seems to have little use for his female cast members, and the few women who do appear in the film have little of substance to do. One is a nurse who strikes up a relationship with Steiner during his brief respite from the front, while the rest of the female cast consist of an unlikely group of buxom soldiers whom Steiner's men stumble across in a remote cabin. The sequence that follows is, on the whole, pretty tasteless (does a dismembered cock count as a victory for feminism, Peckinpah style?) but, as ever, the director embraces matters of good taste and bad with the same conviction.
Surprisingly, however, something quite profound emerges from the chaos towards the pictures end, as the absurdity and ultimate futility of Steiner and Stransky's conflict mirrors the war that surrounds them. What can you do but laugh at the actions of men caught up in their petty pursuit of honour and glory while bodies burn around them? That's exactly what Peckinpah gives us, with Steiner's booming laughter echoing over images of death and destruction towards the end of the picture. Orson Welles called Cross of Iron "The finest anti-war film ever made," and while I wouldn't go that far, the film does indeed capture something about the nature of war and the depressing inevitability of it. "What will we do when we have lost the war?" Colonel Brandt (James Mason) asks during the film, "Prepare for the next one" comes the embittered reply.
A superb collection of extras gives us a generous amount of time with Peckinpah and those who worked with him. The 45-minute Passion & Poetry documentary is replete with great anecdotes about a director who could be a dream and a nightmare to work with, both a hellraiser and extremely loyal. James Coburn's contributions are particularly enjoyable and there are additional audio interviews with Coburn, Peckinpah and others elsewhere on the disc. Vadim Glowna tells an amusing story about his kissing scene, and we get to see the letters that he and Peckinpah wrote to each other during the course of the shoot. An insight into some deleted scenes, a few short featurettes and a couple of trailers round out a fine package.
Cross of Iron is released on Blu-ray on June 13th.
Buy Cross of Iron here