Cross Of Iron (1977) -  Tom Fallows

I’ve usually avoided anti-war movies on the basis that the central message lacks insight. War is hell these movies tell us and alls I can think in reply is, ‘well, duh.’ Of course you’re anti-war, in the same way any sane person is anti-getting punched in the face, anti-drinking your own piss or anti-scratching your balls on a barbed wire fence. To be ‘pro’ any of these things would make you a moron. So why should we celebrate a film which has the fundamental point of restating the obvious?

Well, in this case because the anti-war movie CROSS OF IRON (1977) is directed by Sam Peckinpah, a man whose mad drunken genius gave us THE WILD BUNCH (1969) and PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID (1973). Peckinpah’s films are often deranged and violent (CROSS OF IRON is no different) and contain a bitter hatred of authority and a brimming masculinity. He views the world as despicable, desperate and lost.

To make matters even more contentious, CROSS OF IRON is a Second World War movie told from the perspective of the Germans. And Peckinpah has the audacity to make us like em, or at least to understand the muddied morality into which these characters wade.

Based on the book by Willi Heinrich the film begins on the Russian Tamen Peninsula as the Germans, broken and starving, are forced into retreat. They are filthy, worn-out, sick from dysentery and have long since abandoned their ideals in favour of basic survival. The stoic Rolf Steiner (JAMES COBURN) is a career soldier whose only care is keeping his men alive. But when the autocratic Captain Stransky (MAXIMILIAN SCHELL) arrives, he throws them all directly into the enemy’s fire in his desperate attempt to win the Iron Cross.

Peckinpah presents us with a world on the brink of total chaos where life is running out on both sides. There is an apocalyptic doom as men become thin on the ground and the armies must refill the ranks with kids barely old enough to shave.

“They’re sending us babies now,” observes one soldier.

Streiner’s own attempt to save a young Russian prisoner is met with cataclysm as he watches the boy get shot down by his own side. In war time innocence is a commodity that can’t be afforded. For Stransky’s part he attempts to use bureaucracy to take control of the madness. But it is a fool’s errand and there is a deep absurdity as he discusses procedure while the world around him is blown to pieces.

His counterparts, Brandt (JAMES MASON) and Kiesel (DAVID WARNER) are two Colonels who are weary with the fighting and perhaps life in general. Indeed, Warner gives a magnificently balanced performance as a good man guilty about his part in the Third Reich.

 

“Do you think they’ll ever forgive us for what we’ve done?”

He is often sickly but keeps his sardonic sense of humour and laughs off his unending diarrhoea. Both he and Brandt view themselves as failures, but admire Steiner for his bravery. It is a feeling not returned, despite their support of him against Stransky:

“Do you think that just because you and Colonel Brandt are more enlightened than most officers that I hate you any less?” barks Steiner. “I hate all officers.”

The film is magnificently antiestablishment, an outlook which mirrors Peckinpah in real life, a man who would rally against studio executives just because. CROSS OF IRON is anarchic in the best ways and the link between bureaucracy and fascism is nicely drawn. After all the Nazi were the ultimate institution and despite the even handed portrayal of these soldiers (Soldier’s of the Weimar not Hitler) Peckinpah shows some glee at ripping this culture apart.

And the scenes of fighting are typically poetic – and typically destructive. As tanks crash through barbed wire fences and machine guns spit out hell fire, we see guts flying as soldiers explode. The ground shakes, smoke engulfs the trenches and dirt sprays into the grey sky. This is war at its most devastating yes, but the slow motion photography is almost hypnotic and gives the violence an uneasy grace.

Sure, CROSS OF IRON is an anti-war movie that does indeed suggest that war is hell. But it also shows us an attractive side, in Steiner and in the violence, which forces us inward to examine our own love of destruction. As a people we are all fundamentally anti-war (only a moron wouldn’t be), but somehow, we can’t seem to help ourselves.

 

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