If there’s one film in the late career of Sam Peckinpah that stands out among the rest, it’s Cross of Iron. By 1977, Peckinpah was still regarded relatively highly within the American film industry despite the fact that his last few films – Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and The Killer Elite – performed atrociously at the box office. While most Peckinpah purists regard Alfredo Garcia as a violent and uncompromising classic, there’s little doubt that The Killer Elite is one of the weak points in the director’s career. Cross of Iron would be followed by Convoy and Peckinpah’s final film, The Osterman Weekend, but the former of the three is the only one that truly taps into the brutal verve that made the director so sought-after in the first place.
Interestingly – though perhaps not so surprisingly – Peckinpah supposedly turned down offers to direct the King Kong remake (with Jeff Bridges) and the first Superman film, opting for Cross of Iron instead. Hindsight is 20/20, sure, and odds are you’ve heard of King Kong and Superman while the “heroes” of Cross of Iron are difficult to name even after you’ve just watched the film – but one gets the sense that Peckinpah wouldn’t care about that, and would’ve picked Cross of Iron all over again if he were given the choice today. It was the quality of the story that mattered most to Peckinpah, and while King Kong and Superman endure to this day for a variety of reasons it can probably be argued that the strength of their scripts is pretty far down on that list.
James Coburn stars as Rolf Steiner, a well-respected but thoroughly disillusioned soldier who comes into contact with the freshly-arrived Commander Stransky, played by Maximilian Schell. Amid the incessant bombing and high frequency of final breaths, Stransky is intent only on one thing: the attainment of the valorous Iron Cross. Steiner, frankly, doesn’t give a shit about things like war medals and laudations from his high command, and these differences of opinion between the two men are furthered by the fact that Steiner, somewhat ironically, is a heck of a lot more valorous than Stransky. Stransky is more liable to sneak and weasel his way into the commendation – and that’s because the commendation itself, the little black cross forged of iron, is far more important to Stransky than the acts that one actually should be displaying in order to earn it.
The Steiner/Stransky dynamic is the core strength of Cross of Iron; there are quite a few other characters, but hardly any of them are worth remembering. The scenes in which Steiner and Stransky exchange their views on war and lives worth living are fantastic, and the dialogue as delivered by Coburn and Schell absolutely sings. They muse on social class, invoking Kant and Schubert and comparing humble beginnings and glorious ends. Stransky consistently overreaches in these discussions, preoccupied with the aforementioned symbols of valor while largely scoffing at any actual valor, preoccupied with grand ideals as he squats in a dirty bunker – “we are speaking in general,” he says at one point, “not about individuals.” Steiner, meanwhile, can only regard Stransky with the kind of smugness one would have to employ in the face of such a character – “but I am one,” he responds, “and so are you.”
Cross of Iron, along with a handful of other fantastic and fantastically-underseen films including William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, had the unfortunate timing of being released within a few months of Star Wars and, thus, was glossed over and forgotten by audiences fairly quickly. Granted, it’s not an entirely flawless movie – Peckinpah and Co. edited the hell out of the battle sequences, and sometimes that means Cross of Iron approaches an eerie kind of strobelight effect in flashes of blood and death. Sometimes, though, it’s just plain distracting watching these slides of images flip by, gone before you realize what you’re looking at, on to the next. At best, Peckinpah always had a signature flair for adding a seemingly random shot into a scene of brutality and having it make total sense – here, it’s a few quick exterior shots of a chicken coop scattering at the sound of a gunshot, effortlessly slipped in before we return to the interior shot to discover who’s pulled the trigger. The synonymous shots of the swarming ants devouring the carcass of the scorpion at the beginning of The Wild Bunch essentially achieve the same effect.
Steiner’s stony demeanor in the face of the atrocities of war comes to a bit of a head, which is likely why most immediately brand Cross of Iron as “an anti-war film”. It certainly is anti-war, and one of the finest examples of the genre, but something about that terminology – “yeah, it’s an anti-war film” – somehow takes the forcefulness out of the picture you form in your head. Steiner also comes to a crossroads with Stransky, and again, it’s this relationship that really drives Cross of Iron. The attached scene is from the end of the film (so maybe don’t watch it yet if you’re considering hunting the entire film down) and shows Steiner and Stransky approaching this crossroads. Stransky is his usual pompous self, but he soon realizes that Steiner, for all of his refusal to see things the way Stransky implores him to, truly knows where the Iron Crosses grow…