In venturing into the then somewhat overstuffed area of WWII war films Peckinpah unsurprisingly chose to do something a little different, framing the conflict not from the side of the Allied forces but making a film that embeds us in the trenches with the German troops. Shot mostly on location in Yugoslavia Cross of Iron reconstructs the Eastern Front circa 1943 and centres on the German troops fighting there.
Arriving at the front-line early in the film is Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell), a stuffy Prussian officer desperate to win the prestigious Iron Cross. At the front he finds a dejected group of men who seem to care little for the reasons for the war and appear to have all but given up, asking questions such as “What will we do when we lose the war?”. One man stands out though as a venerated hero and a force to reckoned with, a legend amongst the men and his name is Corporal Steiner (James Coburn).
Coburn himself described Steiner as “…a gentleman gone berserk.” and it’s hard to disagree with that assessment. Steiner is one of Peckinpah’s many great creations, at once a fascinating and layered character but also one so seemingly fixated on a single purpose. It is the character of Steiner and Coburn’s hardened performance of him that is one of the film’s most memorable strengths.
Peckinpah’s direction also stands out seeming almost effortlessly measured and assured, with the scenes of action being particularly noteworthy for their visceral impact. The scenes of the men simply hanging out and discussing the war are also expertly weaved into the film though with an attention paid to the meaning of war and why men fight. At no point though does one feel as if a polemic is being thrust into the film, despite the heady discussions surrounding war and the obvious parallels to discussions being had in a post-Vietnam America.
Through engaging with the war genre Peckinpah finds the bleak and pointless nature of war and the cold truths from the men who fight. When asked, for instance, if he believes in God Steiner replies “I believe that God is a sadist and doesn’t even know it.”. War as presented in Cross of Iron is dramatic, scary, intense and brutal but perhaps most significantly absurd and often futile.
The new Blu-ray from Optimum is something of a treat, with vastly improved picture and audio over previous standard definition releases and the digitally restored HD transfer is to be commended. Whilst the colours don’t punch quite as solidly as in a release such as Warner’s Wild Bunch Blu-ray(a handsome release but one that was a little waxy at times) this seems to be respectful to the intended look of the film and whilst a little grey and green at times this is entirely in keeping with the muted and grim general look of the film. There is clear but subtle grain present consistently throughout but there are very few signs of wear and tear coming through from the original print. Cross of Iron also delivers aurally with a balanced audio track with deep rumbles in the heavy bass of the explosions but also clearly defined dialogue in some of the more quiet moments.
The release comes with a wide array of extras, mostly focusing on input from the key players in front of the camera and a few from behind. These are great for anecdotes and the documentary ‘Passion & Poetry’ does a fine job of collecting many of these into a easily watch-able 46 minutes, but the disc could have benefited from some more academic input, perhaps a commentary from a Peckinpah expert. The extras included are very interesting though and the ‘Steiner In Japan’ probably takes the prize for being the most unexpected delight included.
Cross of Iron is available to buy or rent on Blu-ray now and a complete list of the extras can be found below.
Passion & Poetry – Sam Peckinpah’s War(46:00): A documentary by Mike Siegel featuring James Coburn, Senta Berger, David Warner, Vadim Glowna, Roger Fritz, Katy Haber & Sam Peckinpah. 5 featurettes with 1976 on set audio interviews: Sam Peckinpah (5:06) / James Coburn (5:30) / James Mason (6:05) / Maximilian Schell (4:35) / David Warner (3:14) / Featurette KRÜGER KISSES KERN (8:27) / Letters From Vadim & Sam Featurette (3:48) / Vadim & Sam – Son & Dad Featurette (5:55) / Cutting Room Floor Featurette (4:19) / Mike’s Homemovies Featurette – Steiner meets Kiesel again (7:16) / Steiner In Japan (2-3 mins) / Before & After Restoration Comparison / German Trailer (3:10) / USA TV-Spot (0:30) / USA/UK Trailer (3:42).