Cross of Iron
Dir. Sam Peckinpah
Premiered January 28, 1977
Whichever way you cut it, Cross of Iron was a risky proposition. That one of the great New Hollywood auteurs would try his hand at making a film about the war was inevitable, but it was just as inevitable that, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the finished product would not be a gung-ho endorsement of battle. Even today, filmmakers are hesitant to give such a morally grey treatment to what Studs Terkel famously dubbed “The Good War;” to have done so in the 1970s, when most of the men who fought in the war were only in their fifties*, was downright daring. Director Sam Peckinpah’s solution to this problem– showing the war from the point of the view of the Germans– should have been no less controversial.
It totally works.
Although Cross of Iron was Peckinpah’s only war film, he is an inspired choice. Best known as the man who brought blood into the western, Peckinpah’s trademark style emphasizes the brutality of battle in a way that is beautiful to look at, but conscientious and thoughtful rather than dehumanizing and fetishistic. The film introduces a German Army that is anything but respectable. Reeling from the epic defeat at Stalingrad, the Wehrmacht is in a desperate race back across Russia; ordinary men scarred by years of combat wait to die for a country they no longer believe in; particularly the fatalist Captain Kiesel (David Warner) and the necessarily stiff-upper-lipped Colonel Brandt (James Mason).
In contrast, Sergeant Rolf Steiner (James Coburn) is deeply bitter towards his superiors but far from resigned to an anonymous death. Both of these qualities are put to the test when Steiner’s company gets new leadership in the form of Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell), a haughty aristocrat fresh from occupied France who, although emphatically not a Nazi Party member, has no compunctions against committing war crimes, and is driven solely by a collector’s desire to acquire the vaunted Iron Cross. Stransky’s obsession is enough to get him to take credit for a dead officer’s bravery, only Steiner refuses to go along with the ruse. Stransky retaliates by leaving him and his platoon stranded behind the Soviet line, and with surrender to the Soviets a death sentence in all but name, Steiner must find his way back to company command, with unsettling results.
Although based on Willi Heinrich’s 1955 novel The Willing Flesh, the parallels to the more recent conflict in Vietnam are unmistakable, not least the summer heat, woodland setting, depictions of endless replacement soldiers as naïve conscripts, severe discontent between enlisted men and officers, and the willfully unflattering depiction of many ordinary soldiers. It is a strange but interesting sensation to feel, at times, that you are meant to root against the characters, as when some of Steiner’s men attempt to rape a garrison of female Soviet troops– or when Steiner pointedly leaves them to be torn limb from limb by the women. But while it is not always subtle, Cross of Iron is devastatingly successful in its unexpectedly hopeful message, as conveyed by Colonel Brandt: “the new Germany, if such a thing is allowed to exist, will need builders, thinkers…wars end, nations are defeated, but life goes on. Tomorrow will be another day, and it’s at least worth trying to live for.
Signs This Was Made in 1977
Many of the actors were unwilling to part with their shaggy haircuts, a minor point against the film.
*Among that generation was America’s brand new President, Jimmy Carter. Although not a combat veteran, he did answer the call, training at Annapolis to help lead the Invasion of Japan when the war ended. Within my own lifetime, the United States would have another WWII vet as President, George H.W. Bush.
What’s more, popular culture before MTV was far more interested in appealing to older people than it has since– there’s a reason Frank Sinatra is still so beloved– which accounts for why no fewer than four films in this project are set in the Second World War. Today, pop culture for the aged is either mediocre, kitschy, or awards bait, and goddamnit, they deserve better.
How Did It Do?
Contemporary discussions of Cross of Iron suggest it performed poorly. Although the most popular film of the decade in Germany, the film struggled to overcome a modest but apparently bloated $6 million budget, and wasn’t very commercially appealing to begin with. Critical acclaim was and continues to be glowing. Among the film’s boosters were Orson Welles, who compared it to All Quiet on the Western Front, and Quentin Tarantino, who drew inspiration for Inglourious Basterds. Director Sam Peckinpah, whose most celebrated work was behind him, followed the film up with Convoy, embarrassingly his biggest financial success.
Next Time: Suspiria