Cross of Iron (1977)
With a very distinctive visual style and portrayal of violence, I knew I was in for something both beautiful and gloriously violent. That’s not to say that Sam Peckinpah enjoyed violence for which he will always be remembered for, in fact it was quite the opposite, hating it with a passion. Increasing the volume greatly from The Wild Bunch (1969) which can seem tame in comparison to the much later Cross of Iron (1977) on the Nazi battlefield in Russia.
It’s very rare that we actually sympathise with a German soldier, something I have only done twice before; All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and Das Boot (1981). Again it doesn’t really matter what side these soldiers are on, seen more as men in the midst of a war they are loosing. Focusing on their dynamics rather than the politics of the conflict as the began their retreat from Russia in 1943. The main conflict is between the decorated and rebellious Rolf Stiener (James Coburn) and the Prussian Captain Hauptmann (Maximilian Schell) who wants the Iron Cross medal, an iconic and sought after piece in the Third Reich. A personal fight for glory is being waged between two men. A clash of class ideals is going on between these influential men on the Russian front.
The opening titles of this film are fascinating, matched to a frantic succession of images that depict the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazi army, as if they are playing a game, just children taking over the playground. Tinged with cynicism of the weary soldier characterised by Coburn who gas grown to hate all that is about the war and probably Germany. Still he carries out his orders and looks out for his men throughout. Even pitying a young prisoner they find, not having the heart to kill a boy in uniform, which would amount to murder not a legal killing in his and the mens eyes.
Theres a battle within the structure of command, between the colonel Oberst (James Mason) and his assistant Captain Hauptmann (David Warner). Both weary of the war, knowing they have all but lost, wondering when they will surrender. Warner plays a depressed captain whose hopes have been all but lost to the ravages of war, whilst the colonel is holding together his command. Handling a glory hungry upper-class Prussian who will stop at nothing in gaining the Iron Cross, unable to return to his family without one.
A lot of subject matter is discussed here, from the ethics of prisoner treatment to the glory of fighting, philosophy of the individual. By no means is this just a find the enemy and shooter dead kind of a film. It’s both intelligent and thought-provoking as we see the injured soldier, how they are treated by the higher ranks, the mental stresses of war, dramatically seen in slow-motion flashbacks. Whichever side of war you are on, it’s never easy for the simple soldier out there fighting. Who can lose that sense of purpose, killing, running and following orders that lose all meaning with all the death and destruction around them.
The violence found within The Wild Bunch was for its time controversial, by the time of Cross of Iron we had grown used to it all. The very setting of the latter film delivers us more studies of death as they slowed down to not enjoy but be horrified by. Cinematically we see a life coming to an end in far more than a flash of an explosion or a round of bullets piercing flesh and blood. Being forced to see such brutality makes death a spectacle to watch in awe. It’s just a trick, whilst in reality it’s anything but. This heightened experience of war makes it more real and at the same time hype real, what is over in a second we now see for 10 seconds.
It’s ultimately about two men at logger heads, at either end of the social spectrum placed into a world that a power struggle. No one really wins as we leave them when the Russians once more advance. I’m cheering for no one at this point, drained by all the violence that has been spewing out of the screen. All the tired men just trying to live another day as best they can. Isn’t that we are all trying to do, get through the day the best we can, making the most of what we have? Ok maybe a bit extreme there, I’m not in a war zone not knowing if I’ll be alive by the end of the day. For me I’ve just discovered a hidden gem of Peckinpah’s that deserves more praise than it receives, understanding his subject matter, always following the underdog at his demise, just what he does best.
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