#9 in my ranking of Sam Peckinpah’s filmography.
With The Killer Elite, it felt like Sam Peckinpah had simply lost the ability to make a movie, not just a good movie, but a movie period. Unfocused, lethargic, and pretty uniformly unentertaining or enlightening, it was a once talented director simply lost in material he didn’t care about. Well, he turned things around by using German money (well, at least until the German money ran out) and filming in Yugoslavia to make a film about German soldiers on the Russian front as everything collapsed around them. Peckinpah’s films, even his best films, have a certain messy quality to them, and Cross of Iron is something of a heightened example of that with a few different prominent ideas running through. However, it’s still a return to form, a solidly told story, and a harrowing one to boot.
On the Eastern Front, in a dug-in position, Colonel Brandt (James Mason) commands a forward post that’s under constant shelling from Russian forces. One bright spot in his command is Corporal Steiner (James Coburn), a non-commissioned officer who has quality results running reconnaissance but who grates on every one of his superiors. Into this picture comes a new captain from the West, Stransky (Maximillian Schell), a Prussian aristocrat turned German officer who has very strict views of how to run an army deep in the wilderness and constantly under attack from the enemy. It’s obvious that there’s going to be friction between Stransky and Steiner the moment they meet, Stransky having been thrown in the mud to avoid a mortar shell, spoiling his finely preserved officer’s uniform.
One of the ideas that is fairly prominent in the film is a further variation on how Peckinpah had been dealing with dueling male characters through most of his career. Steiner and Stransky are both unbelievers in the Nazi cause who must do their duty within the army nonetheless. Steiner is a cynic who believes in nothing anymore, and Stransky is very much of his class. When Steiner confronts Stransky with Hitler’s desire to rid the world of all class structure, Stransky actually gets angry because he knows that it’s an attack on his station in life, his position over other men, and we even get a small moment where he explains to a subordinate officer his vision of the world, where men are meant to be free and exert control over others (a contradiction he obviously doesn’t care to reconcile). Unfortunately, this contrast gets lost as the film ends up going in a couple of different directions.
There’s a lot of general cost and terrors of war, the early parts center on a Russian soldier no older than 12 whom Steiner captures in contradiction to Stransky’s orders to kill him. There’s a battle as a Russian probing of the German position becomes a full out assault that is filmed with Peckinpah’s flair for the confusion (it works really well) that leads to Steiner taking a time out in a hospital away from the front lines. It’s here where the film becomes most visually interesting and generic at the same time, embracing a certain “war is hell” thematic focus while going straight up surreal in Peckinpah’s editing choices. There’s also an underlying idea, that feeds with a lot of what Peckinpah had done before, of powerful men using the less powerful to commit violence that comes to the surface with the visit of a general who seems disgusted at the cost of human life for the war he sees before him. Oh, and there’s a brief romance with a nurse that feels right at home with how Peckinpah views women.
Steiner returns to the front, leaving early and obviously uncomfortable with his hallucinations from his concussion, and the film regains its focus. Stransky is gunning for the Iron Cross, and he has one signature from his lieutenant Triebeg (Roger Fritz) whom he had brought under his thumb after Triebeg implicitly admitted to homosexual tendencies. He needs another from Steiner which Steiner will not give, but he also doesn’t take Brandt’s side against Stransky completely because he hates the entire officer class. This is all setup for the final act of the film where the German army goes into full retreat, Brandt orders no rearguard action, and Stransky doesn’t give that order to Steiner. It becomes a desperate fight and then a lonely quest through enemy territory to try and catch up with the rest of the German army (recollections of the third part of Kobayashi‘s The Human Condition came to mind). There’s a unique event at a bridge where the much reduced troop takes out some Soviet sentries and discovered a half dozen female Soviet soldiers that ends up leading to one of the Germans getting castrated, a fate Steiner ends up feeling is deserved.
The return to the lines is the action climax, and it’s a return to the idea of the elite using the lower classes for their own ends. It involves a risky attempt to get through the German lines in the haze of combat and war that turns badly. The actual ending is truncated with a final showdown between Steiner and Stransky that I don’t think actually works. Peckinpah had run out of money, and before they were kicked off sets, he and his core group of actors filmed something in an afternoon. It’s not really a conclusion, but a stop, and it doesn’t seem to match with the quote from Berthold Brecht that finishes out the closing credits.
So, it’s something of a mess, but there’s a return to the assured filmmaking of his films before The Killer Elite that helps give Cross of Iron a professionalism that his previous film lacked. There’s a story to follow that makes sense, anchored by a solid character in Steiner as played by Coburn. It’s the makings of what Peckinpah was doing at the height of his creative powers in the late 60s and early 70s, but I really feel like the thematic discordance doesn’t help the film. It goes from “war is hell” to a class based thing to the camaraderie of men in war. It kind of feels like it swerves from one story to another. What’s there is never bad, but it’s also never involving from a thematic point of view.
What carries the audience through is Steiner himself as he faces his series of obstacles, and Coburn is very good in the central role. Schell is appropriately slimy and nefarious as Stransky. Mason holds himself well with exhausted confidence as the colonel in charge of it all, and David Warner has a nice little part as Mason’s adjutant, though his rule ends up another thematic tangent about moving on from Nazi rule after the fall of Germany in the war.
This feels like Peckinpah barely holding the large production together through every dollar available. His producers were not Hollywood and couldn’t just fork over another few million dollars when he ran out of money, so he had to just finish things up quickly without much of a satisfactory ending. It’s not a last masterpiece from Peckinpah, but it is one final solid effort before he decided to go truckin’ in an effort to find financial success again.
5 thoughts on “Cross of Iron”
Well I disagree with you quite a bit over The Killer Elite, but I agree that this is a pretty damn good film.
It ties in nicely with a book I read, ‘Soldat’, which was the memoir of a German officer who fought to the literal bitter end against the Russians. It feels like it has the air of truth, despite some storytelling ‘heightening’. One thing to recall in Peckinpah’s war films is that he saw war up close and not in the glorious battles, but in the nasty, ugly, murderous aftermath. He saw the backbiting, the slaughter during retreats where sorting the good guys from the bad guys was impossible. Because China.
Anyway, good review. I’ll be offline the rest of the week for a Holiday trip. I hope you and yours have a good Thanksgiving. I enjoy talking movies and stuff with ya.
Join in on the convoy to your destination!