What with lunatic/maverick filmmaker Sam Peckenpah’s proclivity for fashioning incredibly brutal adventures featuring unfeasibly grizzled men trying to find a sliver of decency in horrific acts, it’s frankly stunning that he only made one war movie.
Of course, the one war movie he did make is typically one of the most grimy, slimy, nihilistic, war-is-hell, World War II films ever run through a projector as the disheveled troops of a German infantry battalion try to survive both the constant Russian bombardments and the growing feud between their charismatic Sergeant and their new, opportunistic Captain.
Utilising his typically bombastic style with a metric ton of anti-war cynicism, Peckenpah delivers a movie that’s equal parts mournful musing and callous brutality that exhilarates as it mercilessly depresses the crap out of you.
Based at an outpost that’s eternally getting hammered by some sort of explosion every twenty seconds, we are introduced to Rolf Steiner, the double-hard bastard leader of a reconnaissance platoon who is also the recipient of Germany’s highest military order, the Iron Cross. As he leads his motley crew through the daily missions of bullets and blood, his life is somehow made even more complicated by the arrival of Prussian aristocrat Captain Stransky who had pushed for a transfer to this muddy death trap in favour of a post in Nazi occupied France in order to secure an Iron Cross nomination for himself by any means necessary.
Naturally, Steiner and Stransky clash like a feral wildcat and a rabid dog forced to hang out while dressed in german uniforms and they butt heads on numerous matters but things come to a head when the Russians storm their camp and people start falling dramatically while gushing blood in slow motion. Once the Russians are routed and the dust (and gore) settles, matters only get worse when Stransky claims he performed acts of heroism during the raid (spoiler: he didn’t) and demands that a wounder Steiner acts as an official witness once he heals from a titanic concussion.
Obviously Steiner refuses, which causes Stransky to play dirtier than literally everything other filth encrusted thing in the movie and he neglects to inform his nemesis about the sizable retreat the Germans put in place in the face of overwhelming Russian force. Forced to fight their way through enemy soldiers, hails of bullets and a bunch of fucking tanks, Steiner has to lead his men through a literal hell in order to save his devoted men and gain revenge on the conniving Stransky. Can they survive a gauntlet of artillery, misery and genital biting (oh, you heard me) in order to restore a basic sense of sanity in these vicious times of insanity?
A deliberate thumb in the eye to every war movie that portrays white toothed heroes bloodlessly slaughtering dozens of German soldiers with a single machine gun burst as they overcome insurmountable odds for their country, Cross Of Iron is possibly Peckenpah at his most defiant. Rewriting the rules of the war movie he portrays his characters as broken down wrecks in the face of defeat as they slowly starve in the face of relentless pressure from the unstoppable Russians. As if to show exactly this, Steiner and his crew adopt a Russian child soldier in secret instead of executing him like their orders dictate and casually joke about how bad their farts are – these are not the casual, dead-eyed stormtroopers portrayed by other movies; these are men broken by the lies of their leaders who are deeply (and rightfully) distrustful of their officers. Acting as a lightning rod to this way of thinking is Maximilian Schell’s self obsessed Stransky, a man willing to sink to any depths to garner himself the glory to which he’s convinced he’s already earned be it taking the credit from a deceased officer or blackmailing compliance from a homosexual subordinate. In any other movie he’d mearly be a hissable cad, but in Peckenpah’s morally murky world he’s distrust of authority made flesh. The flip side to this coin is James Coburn’s Steiner, a man loyal to his men first and foremost who won’t leave them even when an injury gives him a golden ticket to get his taciturn butt home and the actor is resplendent in the role; gritting his teeth through blizzards of shit and calling matters right down the line as he tries to go down a humane path despite fate relentlessly giving him the middle finger.
Peckenpah seems locked on a mission to give us the grimest WWII experience that he possibly could, with life senslessly ripped from people at every turn as he gives us numerous sobering images that break up the continuing battle of wills between the leads. A discarded, waterlogged body squishes under the tyres of countless trucks, a russian child soldier is mistakenly torn to shreds by gunfire from his own side and in possibly it’s most notorious scene a female Russian soldier fights back against her inevitable rape by castrating her attacker with her teeth – you don’t get shit that that in Escape To Victory…
Cross Of Iron’s director was notoriously not a sunshine and daisies kind of guy, but even by his standards his ode to the inhumanity of war is rough going on both sides of the camera. By all intents and purposes, the shoot apparently was also chaos with the production running out of money before the climax could be properly shot and Peckenpah’s losing vital film days due to his enthusiastic consumption of 180° proof alcohol. However, it’s precisely this sense of desperation which adds to the hopelessness of it’s tone and leads to it’s highly enigmatic ending – also, the director’s impressive consumption of cocaine led to the film’s heroically muscular editing style of it’s truly devastating action sequences which Coburn frankly looks born to stride through.
Admittesly, while the camaraderie makes Coburn’s teammates memorable as a group, they’re hardly stand alone characters and some might find the deliberately discombobulating action as confusing as some as the accents are inconsistent – but on the other hand we get a wonderfully sardonic performance from David Warner’s diarrhea suffering Captain and the sight of James Mason marching through explosions while firing a machine gun.
Stripping the cartoonish pomp and honour from the action war movies of the 60’s and smearing them with a messy handprints of blood and shit long before modern attempts dutifully did the same, Cross Of Iron is a stunning anti-war movie that bores itself into the brain like a sniper’s bullet.
Peckenpah has been better, but not even his other cordite scorched movies proved to be as single-mindedly relentless as this magnificent example of military-grade misery.