Cross of Iron
Dir. Sam Peckinpah, 1976, U.S.
by Nick Pinkerton
Itâs surprising to think that Cross of Iron is Sam Peckinpahâs only categorizable âwarâ filmâthough Major Dundee comes awfully close. The reason is obvious: in a filmography hectic with so much shootingâeveryone packs heatâand dirt-caked male bonding, these movies winds up feeling like war, and so The Wild Bunchâs climax, in many viewerâs minds, somehow bridged the Old West and Vietnam in 1969. So: the world is still death-infested, men are still hard-wired for killingâŠ What distinguishes Peckinpahâs ârealâ WWII story from his movies of peacetime warring? Only that diplomatically sanctioned combat is much, much bigger, louder, dirtier, bleaker, and blacker than anything his other films imagined.
Itâs a maelstrom of a movie. The dominating logic in the editing of warfareâculled from an 89-day shootâs miles of footageâis percussive rather than informative. Impact trumps information, as different calibers of artillery rumble in basso continuo; the spatial relationships between combatants or the geography of their melees ranges from muddled to indecipherable, depending on the scale of the fight. The result creates a degree of ambivalence in the viewer: who knows who to cheer on when you donât know whoâs doing what to whom? The filmâs centerpiece battle moves with such a stirring flicker that itâs difficult to notice how garbled its terrain is; in it, a German platoon led by James Coburnâs upright, harassed Sgt. Steiner, uninformed of a full retreat by a snide superior (Maximilian Schell), are submerged by a surging Russian army on counter-offensive. The Germans fall back into a dilapidated factory, into a dingy tunnel and, suddenlyâŠ out onto a hillside, somehow safe from the battle? Did they flank the Russians? Teleport?
Trying to fall back and reconstruct the logistics of whatâs just happened is about as impossible as trying to draw Charles Bovaryâs cap as itâs described on the second page of Madame Bovary (try it), and one can argue that Peckinpah was interested in telling a story about war as something that beggars articulation, just as Flaubert was interested in probing the limitations of the word (âHuman language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when all the time we are longing to move the stars to pityâ)âfor the passing of time reveals the man reductively referred to as âBloody Samâ more-and-more as a poet. One less susceptible to the romance of artist-heroes might suggest that Samâs reported on-set benders on 180-proof Slivovitz and powder hogging off the editing table mayâve been the deciding influence of this foggy war. And there is the fact that Peckinpah had far less arms and armor than expected to work with on-shoot, and no real air force, which required some tricky cutting for epic effect. Whatever the case, itâs one of those ripe ironies of film history that any aesthetic advance is an invitation and that, if he cannot be held directly responsible, we can still draw a pretty clean line between Peckinpah and the blizzards of nonsensical beauty from Tony Scott, Michael Bay, and the rest usually criticized with the less-than-descriptive catch-all pejorative âMTV-style editing.â
Henâs Toothâs fine 1.78:1 transfer of Cross of Iron provides a much-needed correction to their previous, cropped release. Hereâs to hoping it helps to restore an unquestionably significant effort by Peckinpah to its proper placeâitâs heartening to watch Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garciaâs spike in reputationâthough where Cross will finally settle in his body of work is rather difficult to say. There is much that is fascinating in it, and nearly as much that is not; the merely ludicrous (a cherubic Russian lad, adopted by the platoon, who recalls the most mawkish passages of Sam Fuller) competes with the wonderfully lunatic (the gut-churning cut-away detail of a corpse smushed in two by a tank tread; a stumbled-across outpost of buxom Russian soldierettes too undisciplined to play proper sirens; a trooper picking a sprig of lavender just before an assassination.)
Sorely missing is the directorâs gallery of picturesque goons to dapple and embellish his frameâthe infantry under Sgt. Steiner are distinguishable from one another, but very little more. Thereâs an attempt to create something equivalent to earthy, pull-my-finger camaraderie, but Peckinpahâs international cast never seems to cohere in the best bit-player fashion of that famous peckerwood gallery of Strother Martin, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, L.Q. JonesâŠ Still, I must confess that I admired the ungainly entry of a desperate homoeroticism into Peckinpahâs all-male world, as in the quelling of one soldierâs cabin fever outburst by a lunging kiss from a comrade (also: dapper Fassbinder actor Roger Fritz appears as a blackmailed gay officerââYou do like Biarritz, donât you?â).
Some of the castâs failings might be attributable to the script, written by Julius Epstein, James Hamilton, and Walter Kelley, adapted from Willi Heinrichâs novel The Willing Fleshâyou know a movieâs in a bit of trouble when anyone says their character description aloud, as Schell has to: âIâm a Prussian nobleman!â But fine performances slip through; the best bit of actorly shorthand is courtesy David Warnerâs thoroughly defeated officer Keisel, sunken, diarrheic, and perpetually draped over the back of a chair. He has some dismal scenes to slog through with an anomalous, autumnal James Mason, but retains a stoop-shouldered dissipation that holds far more conviction than the pithy fatalisms the screenplay asks him to exhale (âWhat will we do when we lose the war?â âPrepare for the next oneâ). He even manages to save his particularly leaden goodbye scene, flopping back into a motorcycle sidecar, making his final salute like heâs throwing something away.
To return to the disc itself: a commentary track is provided by Stephen Prince, apparently the author of a Peckinpah bookâheâs dutiful, thorough in his comparisons between the film and its source material, ever-ready with historical detail, slavishly auteurist, and nearly interminable. Listening to this movie dissected and classified according to themes made it seem paltry; I had to turn Cross of Ironâs sound back on to remember what a grumbling, angry thing it was; I think Peckinpah mayâve been the man to film CĂ©line (or at least to take an interesting crack at Castle to Castle), if only for his abstract political despair, and for the way he sections so many of his bunker dialogues with cut-aways of blossoming explosions, like the violent partitioning of the writerâs ellipsis.
The film concludes on an appropriate note of bracing psychosis, as Steiner and his Prussian nemesis walk side-by-side into certain-death assault, and Coburn unleashes that long, Cheshire Cat smile and starts guffawing his head off, a gaping, gut-deep laugh. Itâs the sort of thing that prompts an exchange of baffled looks when the credits roll, as Coburn keeps belly-laughing, right over the archival photography of hanged children, of Belgrade, of VietnamâVon Trierâs American movies may come to mind, with their âYoung Americansâ montagesâand then even a quote from Brechtâs anti-fascist parable âThe Resistable Rise of Arturo Leeâ!
Not so much concluding his films as exploding them, negating them in a crackle of squibs, is a familiar Peckinpah tacticâenough so that Monty Python could memorably parody it as early as 1972âs âSam Peckinpahâs âSalad Daysââ skit, which showed the directorâs attempt to film a pastoral English garden party turning apocalyptic (âPretty strong meat there from Sam Peckinpahâ). But Coburnâs inappropriate outburst, his final, echoing explosion of wild vitality, is more audacious than mere death; it sets the movie rocking with tremors of the absurd. And why not? Could anything be more ridiculous than rooting for the German army to slaughter the Soviets? For the Soviets to slaughter the Germans? Steiner starts laughing upon seeing his idiot superior spooked by a stray shot, but thatâs not really whatâs funny. Maybe heâs just hit on the punchline to some cosmic joke. Or maybe heâs just grasped this movieâs definition of war: sound and fury symbolizing sound and fury.