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Thursday, August 30, 2018

Director Report Card: Sam Peckinpah (1977)

12. Cross of Iron

As a director keenly focused on violence and masculinity, warfare is a subject Sam Peckinpah touched upon a few times throughout his career. “Major Dundee” and “The Wild Bunch” both technically belonged to the war genre, while military records were part of the back story of a few of his protagonists. Yet, before 1977, the director never touched upon modern warfare. That would all change with “Cross of Iron.” Adapted from “The Willing Flesh” by Willi Heinrich and loosely inspired by the life of Nazi officer Johann Schwerdfeger, the film would show Peckinpah putting his definitive stamp on the war genre. Like many of the director's films, it would be overlooked in its time but later reevaluated.

It's 1943 and World War II rages on. Sergeant Rolf Steiner leads a small platoon on the Eastern Front. The Germans are getting hammered by Soviet forces. Steiner and his men are completely disenfranchised from their national cause. Entering into this area is Prussian officer, Captain Stransky. An aristocrat, Stransky's greatest goal is to earn the Iron Cross. Steiner is injured following a Russian attack on their encampment. After recovering in a hospital, he returns to his platoon. Steiner then learns Stransky has lied about leading the counterattack against the Russians and is now in line to receive the Cross. Steiner refuses to support Stransky's version of events. This begins a conflict between the two men, which will last as long as the war does.

Peckinpah's no-punches-pulled depiction of violence has often been mistaken for a celebration of bloodshed. With his World War II picture, Peckinpah didn't want to leave any room for confusion. “Cross of Iron” is an anti-war movie. Its atmosphere is fittingly oppressive. The film begins with a patriotic German song, accompanied by images that could be out of a Nazi propaganda movie. The film concludes with the same song but the images are now of executions and dead bodies. As the film's story makes abundantly clear, there is no glory to be had in war. “Cross of Iron” is about blood and mud, death and disgrace. As far as atmosphere goes, it's the most brutal war movie I've ever seen.

“Cross of Iron's” plot is largely episodic, following Steiner and his men as they try to survive the war. The common thread bonding these events together is a story of class warfare among literal warfare. Back home, Stransky is an aristocrat. He joins the war effort for glory. He specially asked to be transferred from the more stable Nazi-occupied France to the violent Eastern Front so he could prove his heroics. He has no idea of, and is deeply unprepared for, the realities of war. Steiner, meanwhile, has seen too much. He immediately hates Stransky. Later, he clarifies that he hates all commanding officers, the well-to-do people that send men like him to their deaths. “Cross of Iron” shares this opinion, having nothing but disdain for the rich and powerful that profit off of war, in comparison to the actual soldiers who fights for their lives.

Peckinpah's use of violence is always uncompromising. However, “Cross of Iron” is especially grisly. During the first scene, Steiner's platoon discovers a dead child. This proceeds the platoon capturing a young Russian boy as a prisoner. Steiner takes pity on the boy and frees him, only to see the child gunned down by his own countrymen. During the following attack, a soldier is eviscerated by a blast, his disemboweled body laying on a barb wire fence. Later, we see men blown away by tanks, stabbed with bayonets, and gunned down. Peckinpah's use of slow motion – as a way to emphasize the agony of dying men, the horrors of their demises – have never been more pointed. This further builds up the movie's main theme, that there's no glory in dying.

In fact, Peckinpah only depicts one type of honor existing in the trenches. That's the camaraderie that forms between the soldiers. Steiner cares about his men and they care about him. Even after being cleared to return home, after his injury, he decides to go back to the Front instead. This is something else commanding officers like Stransky doesn't understand, as they are more preoccupied with their own honor. This element provides another layer to the story, as Steiner and his platoon are explicitly characterized as not Nazis. They are not loyal to Germany. They are only loyal to each other. So it's okay for the audience to root for them.

The consequences of war are not just depicted on the battlefield. After receiving a serious concussion during the shelling of the German encampment, Steiner awakens in a military hospital. Still shell-shocked, he suffers from hallucinations, seeing his platoon members and the dead Russian boy during a banquet. When commanding officers come to the banquet, the film's main point is visualized. An officer reaches out to shake a veteran's hand... But he doesn't have any hands, only stumps below his elbows. Steiner sees other injuries from people who were less lucky than him, such as a young man with a huge scar across his head. It's an astonishing sequence and it's easy to imagine a whole movie being made from this alone, especially with the subplot of Steiner developing a romance with his nurse.

This is not the only episode from “Cross of Iron” that could've been expanded into its own story. After Steiner's platoon is abandoned behind enemy lines, they eventually make their way to an all-female Russian detachment. What follows is a very peculiar scene. The men antagonize the women. One of the soldiers leaps into a tub with a bathing woman. Later, Steiner asks the ladies to strip, so they can change into the discarded uniforms. One of Steiner's men, an actual Nazi, attempts to assault a woman. Just when it looks like we're wandering into “Straw Dogs” territory again, the woman bites off the soldier's cock. When Steiner sees what the solider under his command has done, he locks him in with the other women, allowing them to take their revenge. The gender politics of this scene are tricky to decipher, though it eventually lands on the anti-rape side of things. It proves once again that Peckinpah's feelings towards women were complicated, being progressive in some ways and backsliding in others.

Leading the film is one of Peckinpah's favorite leading men. James Coburn, whose German accent slips fairly early in the film and never comes back, plays Steiner. It's an intense performance, Coburn inhabiting the role of a man hardened by war. Coburn's best scene occurs when asked to confirm Stransky's lies. He speaks slowly but his words drip with a subtle venom. This moment is nearly topped during the scene were Steiner confirms his hatred of all officers. Coburn is impressive throughout, running the gamut of emotions but also maintaining the hard exterior of an experienced solider.

Most of the other notable names are in the officer roles. Maximilian Schell appears as Stransky. Schell is perfectly conceited and condescending as a man more concerned with glory than the lives of those around him. Schell embodies this kind of villainy during a scene where he blackmails a homosexual soldier. James Mason, his instantly recognizable voice kind of bending into a German accent, is more sympathetic as Oberst Brandt. Mason wears a heavy brow throughout, the decisions he has to make clearly weighing on him. David Warner makes his third Peckinpah appearance as Captain Kiesel, a younger officer who faces down the horrors of war with a quiet sarcasm.

When “Cross of Iron” was released in 1977, reviews were typically mixed. One criticism leveled against the film that was fair was its length. At 133 minutes, it's the longest movie of Peckinpah's career. Several scenes perhaps go on too long. A sequence of German forces being attacked by a Russian tank definitely feels a bit excessive. The last act also feels a bit too bloated. The conflict between Steiner and Stransky is resolved, their rivalry becoming even more bitter following his return. However, the film keeps going for a while longer. Its final image – Coburn laughing madly while wildly firing a machine – is certainly unforgettable. But we probably could've gotten there a little quicker.

“Cross of Iron” was another domestic flop for Peckinpah. The same audiences that embraced “Star Wars” were probably not prepared for a war epic this grim. However, the movie did significantly better overseas. “Cross of Iron” was a German co-production, which was the country where it was most popular. A sequel, “Breakthrough,” was even produced. Richard Burton replaced Coburn as Steiner, who becomes involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. It's hard to imagine a film as brutal as “Cross of Iron” spawning a franchise. To this day, it remains a sobering and intense watch, an uncompromising film about the wages of war. It is Peckinpah's final masterpiece. [Grade: A]

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