All is not quiet on the Russian front.
, 07 Jun 2013
BY THE TIME he made CROSS OF IRON, the career of Hollywood maverick film director Sam Peckinpah was already in decline. The director was caught in the downward spiral of alcohol/drug addiction. The glory days of THE WILD BUNCH and PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID were behind him. In the 1970s, Peckinpahs work would lurch from excellent (STRAW DOGS 1971) to standard, (THE GETAWAY 1972), to downright messy, (BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA 1974 and THE KILLER ELITE 1975). That said, CROSS OF IRON (1977) is probably Peckinpahs Last Great Film. Along with the acclaimed Wolfgang Petersen film, DAS BOOT (1981), CROSS OF IRON is the only other film to show World War II exclusively from the German perspective. From the minute the opening credits roll, with the haunting German childrens rhyme playing over the top, with images of Hitler and Stalingrad (1943), you know that CROSS OF IRON is a very different type of war film. The cast of CROSS OF IRON is exceptional: James Coburn is Steiner, a German soldier who has absolute disregard for the chain of command in the German army. His rebel attitude brings him into sharp contrast with his new commanding officer, Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell), an officer of Prussian aristocracy and a dangerous personality clash develops. James Mason and David Warner are both excellent (Mason as the highest-ranking German officer, Colonel Brandt Warner as the war-weary and cynical Captain Kiesel). Of the German cast, the late Klaus Loewitsch, Roger Fritz and Vadim Glowna are all great. But it is Maximilian Schell as the antagonistic, but ultimately cowardly Captain Stransky who is really superb here. The scene where he goads his Lt. Triebig (Fritz) into admitting that he is homosexual is wrought with tension. Schells Stransky is a man with something to prove. He is obsessed with getting the Iron Cross. Not for bravery, but because he is a German soldier and a Prussian aristocrat, and as such, he feels he could not go back to his family without an iron cross to do so would bring a sense of shame. The battle sequences are all exceptionally well executed all done with Peckinpahs trademark slow-mo violence. And if, in the last act, the massacre of Steiners platoon is similar to the end of THE WILD BUNCH so what? Its still an incredibly powerful sequence. Like DAS BOOT, Cross Of Iron is great at depicting trench and bunker warfare and life on the Russian front in 1943. The scene where Pvt. Kern (Glowna) loses it during Lt. Meyers birthday celebration, and has to be restrained by Cpl. Kruger (Loewitsch), who kisses him full and hard on the lips, just to diffuse the situation is as real as anything depicted on a German U-boat. Also, the scene where Steiner lets the little Russian fledgling boy soldier go, only for the boy to be killed moments later by Russians, is genuinely heartbreaking. But the bleakness is matched by moments of dark humour the sequence where Kern in the bunker, is afflicted by a sudden attack of flatulence is priceless. If there is a problem with CROSS OF IRON it is this: All of the main characters speak English, not German. But the film was an anglo-German production made for Hollywood with an American director. The good news is that the rest of the film is so good that it doesnt really matter that nobody is speaking German after a while it cancels itself out. At least everybody speaks English with a convincing German accent, and when Steiners platoon sing a song, they sing it in the original German. Also, some scenes feel a bit weird: the sequence where Steiner is suffering from shellshock and recovering in an army hospital is cut deliberately so that it is unclear whether Steiner is dreaming or not. Also, the scene later where Steiners men capture a group of Russian women soldiers, only for some of Steiners men to have graphic sex with them, feels a bit unnecessary but that was Peckinpah. On the whole though, CROSS OF IRON is a bloody brilliant war movie full of memorable sequences and dialogue quotes. For example: Captain Stransky to Colonel Brandt (about Captain Kiesel): Colonel. Id like to make something quite clear to Captain Kiesel. I volunteered for this campaign because I feel that men of quality are needed here. It is time to destroy the myth of Russian invincibility. Steiner (opening line) : Good kill. Captain Kiesel: Steiner... is a myth. Men like him are our last hope... and in that sense, he is a truly dangerous man. And best of all: Colonel Brandt: 'What will we do when we have lost the war?' Captain Kiesel: 'Prepare for the next one.'
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