Gonzo filmmaker Sam Peckinpah was already starting to lose his creative way when he made the World War II actioner Cross of Iron. By the mid-’70s, he had become such a substance-abusing hellraiser that his productions were nightmares for nearly everyone involved, and Cross of Iron represents his last hurrah as a serious filmmaker. (He cranked out two more features before his death, but both were embarrassments.) As chaotic and overindulgent as the man who made it, Cross of Iron is also clever, disturbing, and provocative, a flawed psychological drama that could have become a masterpiece had it been executed with more discipline.
Based on a novel by Willi Heinrich and penned by a trio of writers including Hollywood veteran Julius Epstein (Casablanca), the picture follows the adventures of Sgt. Rolf Steiner (James Coburn), a valiant German soldier fighting on the bloody Russian front. Brave, smart, and respected by his men, Steiner would be officer material if he didn’t have a problem with authority, so he quickly gets into a battle of wills with his new commander, Capt. Stransky (Maximilian Schell). A pompous Prussian aristocrat who lacks combat experience, Stransky is an ambitious monster determined to win an Iron Cross by any means necessary. When Stransky tries to claim credit for a heroic charge that was actually led by another man, Steiner emerges as the only eyewitness who can disprove Stransky’s boast, so Stransky abandons Steiner’s platoon in enemy territory when the Germans call a general retreat from the front.
And that’s just one of the threads in this complex movie: There’s also a subplot about Steiner adopting a young Russian boy as his platoon’s ward, an intense sequence in which Steiner convalesces after suffering shell shock, and a sensitively depicted relationship between cynical Col. Brandt (James Mason) and his idealistic right-hand man, Capt. Kiesel (David Warner). As with most Peckinpah pictures, Cross of Iron unfurls as a bloody phantasmagoria. The dramatic scenes are tight and controlled, with Peckinpah drawing consistently interesting work from his gifted cast, and by contrast the action scenes are disjointed and surreal; during the shell-shock sequence in particular, Peckinpah employs impressionistic editing techniques to replicate Steiner’s fragmented state of mind. There’s also plenty of the director’s signature slow-motion violence, so be prepared for shots of viscera exploding in lingering detail.
As a result of this multifaceted storytelling, Cross of Iron is dense and uneven. At one extreme there’s an excruciating scene of Stransky goading two soldiers into confessing their homosexual proclivities, and at the other extreme there’s an over-the-top sequence of Steiner’s platoon taking a group of female Russian soliders captive; the level of sexual violence in the latter sequence is predictably gruesome.
Yet even with all of this transgressive material, the film’s strongest element is a running commentary on the nature of war. By dividing the military mind into a group of sharply individualized characters, the story illustrates how the battlefield both invites and nurtures insanity. Steiner is a strange sort of noble anarchist, bound by a deep sense of loyalty to his men but disdainful of everyone in the upper ranks and virtually oblivious to the politics driving the war. Stransky is a self-serving opportunist not only willing but sadistically eager to make others die for his greater glory. The conflict between these two men becomes more and more heated as the film advances, until finally they’re thrown together in a darkly ironic climax.
That the picture ends on an ambiguous note, instead of definitively resolving the story, says as much about Cross of Iron’s virtues as it does about the film’s failings. The film raises a hundred probing questions even as it piles on lurid war-movie thrills, then dumps all of this information onto the audience so viewers can sort through the muck and find whatever they find. Cross of Iron is a fascinating mess.
Cross of Iron: GROOVY