‘God is a sadist… but he probably doesn’t even know it.’
For the purposes of Cross of Iron (1977), God is Sam Peckinpah, and the victims of his bloody vengeance are the German and Russian soldiers dragged through the mud in this impressively grim panoply of horrors. Misty Yugoslavian locations serve as the Eastern front, and a mixed pack of American, British and German actors play German soldiers on the slow, confused retreat from the Soviet Union.
Julius (Casablanca) Epstein’s script treads lightly around politics: there’s only one dedicated Nazi in the film, the sinister Zoll, the rest being a disillusioned bunch of pragmatic soldiers and one fanatic, but he’s a Prussian aristocrat intent on military glory, rather than a typical representative of the regime. As played by Maximilian Schell, he’s both the film’s main antagonist, and its principal source of comic relief: Schell’s witty performance stresses the character’s preening narcissism, incompetence and innate cowardice (his greatest fear: being found out and exposed).
Against this absurd madman, the film poses James Coburn as Steiner, initially presented as a noble and relatively humane killer, slowly revealed as a typically conflicted, neurotic Peckinpah hero, addicted to the strife of war, feeding on his hatred of officers, ultimately ineffective.
Coburn plays the role, oddly, with his Oirish accent from Duck You Sucker! (1971), which is mildly distracting at first. But he tamps down his lusty movie-star charisma and gives an impressively bitter, glowering performance. James Mason and Peckinpah regular David Warner provide support.
It’s no surprise that the film features lengthy, manically cut battle sequences at deafening volume, with slow motion deployed energetically for moments of mayhem and destruction. More pleasingly, there’s little of the modern fetishising of military technology. The Russian tanks have a dinosaurian rumble and sway to them, and are quite terrifying, but the filmmaker privileges death-porn over gun-porn. As early as in The Getaway (1972), Bloody Sam’s slo-mo had ceased any pretence to capture the adrenaline surge of death agony, and was celebrating the beauty of exploding hubcaps, paperbacks and banisters, a ballet of destruction that had more in common with the pyrotechnic climax of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) than with the original intent behind the mayhem of The Wild Bunch (1969). So while the script attempts a dissection of the urge to fight, the camera and cutting indulge in an orgiastic celebration of the aesthetic possibilities of large-scale destruction and slaughter. There’s certainly a tension between the two, but it’s not necessarily damaging.
The film, like Peckinpah himself, is nevertheless on the verge of disintegration. The jittery, blinking montage of the battles is carried on into conversation scenes (few of which are devoid of the sound of distant explosions). Like Borges’s mythical Aleph, Peckinpah’s cinema wants to see everything at once, so we restlessly snap from set-up to set-up, with a commendable, neurotic attention to nuances of performance. Time is distended, not just in moments of violence, but in the multiple exchanges of glances punctuating the dialogue.
Then, at the end of Act One, a Russian shell pitches Coburn through a series of random dissolves, like a melting hall of mirrors, and into a combat shock sequence that brilliantly uses Peckinpah’s deranged montage to evoke a disconnected, fractured state of being. Coburn wanders through this disjointed mindfuck with bandaged brow, his intelligent-simian face contorted into a lobotomised monkey glower.
This sense of disintegration anticipates the film’s startling ending, which folds in jauntily singing German schoolchildren, maniacal laughter, a quote from Brecht, and a stutter of freeze-frames to paint a vivid portrait of… what? Peckinpah’s over-indulgence in Slivovitz, a diabolic plum brandy that can remove the top of a human head if used correctly? His coke-frayed nerve-endings finally strained to snapping? The madness of war? The impossibility of making a film about it? Whatever the answer, this is an intense, nail-biting, seedy and mad-eyed movie.
Alongside the garbled but well-meant denunciation of war, Peckinpah’s more retrograde side is in evidence, although more muted than in the wild-man rampages of Straw Dogs and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia: a rapist receives harsh punishment, but Coburn’s men seem on the point of committing sexual assault moments before. The camera leers, hand-held, over a voluptuous female bather. Homosexuals are untrustworthy. Killing is manly - but still terrible.
Optimum’s new Blu-Ray looks beautiful, and comes stuffed with extras. Alas, some over-zealous grading seems to have turned day-for-night scenes into brightly, if coldly lit dawn, making lines like ‘We go in at first light’, play nonsensically. A shame, since John (Witchfinder General) Coquillon’s smoky, glazed cinematography is one of the movie’s principle enticements.