Thursday, December 15, 2016
Cross of Iron
Based on the novel The Willing Flesh by Willi Heinrich, Cross of Iron is the story of an aristocratic Nazi officer who heads the army as he deals with non-commissioned officers who don’t agree with his methods. Directed by Sam Peckinpah and screenplay by Julius J. Epstein, James Hamilton, and Walter Kelley, the film is a World War II film set during the Battle of the Caucasus in 1943 as it is an exploration of class and duty. Starring James Coburn, Maximillian Schell, James Mason, Senta Berger, and David Warner. Cross of Iron is a gripping yet rapturous film from Sam Peckinpah.
Set during the 1943 Caucasus campaign at the Taman Peninsula, the film revolves a newly-arrived officer who leads a campaign hoping to get the prestigious Iron Cross as he has to contend with a cynical platoon leader whose main concern is to survive in the battlefield with his men. It is a war film that play into not just what is happening in the battlefield but also behind the scenes as those who fight are struggling to survive yet there are officers with aristocratic backgrounds who doesn’t just crave some form of validity into the fact that they fought a war but also return home as some hero while others did the dirty work for that officer. For Sgt. Rolf Steiner (James Coburn) who already earned an Iron Cross, it’s a medal that doesn’t mean anything as he’s survived many battles with a platoon he sees as brothers as they’re trying to fight for another day despite his own disdain towards Adolf Hitler.
The film’s screenplay is quite complex into not just Sgt. Steiner and his views on war and honor but also is someone who see things for what they are as there are officers he does respect like Colonel Brandt (James Mason) and Captain Kiesel (David Warner) who share his views on war. When Captain Stransky (Maximillian Schell) enters the picture with aristocratic background dating back to the days of Prussia. Cpt. Stransky would become Sgt. Steiner’s new leader as he hopes to lead soldiers into battle and push the Soviets back into Moscow without having to be on the battlefield. Instead, a bloody battle that left several dead including an officer that Sgt. Steiner’s platoon admires where the issue about whether Captain Stransky deserves this Iron Cross come into question. When Sgt. Steiner makes his report to Col. Brandt about what happened, things become complicated where Sgt. Steiner and his platoon are forced to fend for themselves during an evacuation as they didn’t receive the order. All of which would play into Sgt. Steiner’s own view on war and survival.
Sam Peckinpah’s direction is definitely intense not just for the graphic depiction of violence that occurs on the battlefield but also for the tension that is looming behind the scenes. With many of the film’s exterior locations shot on location in former parts of Yugoslavia in Slovenia and Croatia with some interiors shot at Pinewood Studios in Britain. Peckinpah does use a lot of wide and medium shots to capture the vast locations as well as that sense of terror that looms in the battlefield. Even as he would use close-ups and medium shots to play into the suspense such as an opening sequence where Sgt. Steiner and his platoon attack Soviet soldiers as they would later find a young Soviet soldier-boy whom they would take as a POW yet would treat him kindly as he would stay in their camp. It is among these little moments of sentimentality in the film that includes a birthday celebration for a respected officer as it shows a group of men trying to find some semblance of humanity during this chaotic period of war. Those moments are presented with an intimacy as it shows some of the good that is in war as opposed to the scenes where Cpt. Stransky is telling his own officer about his own plans as well as show that air of arrogance and entitlement that Sgt. Steiner would despise. The scenes of war and battle are quite extravagant as well as having a sense of style yet it’s the non-battle scenes such as a sequence of Sgt. Steiner at a hospital in the second act is a very surreal one where he isn’t sure what is going on.
It play into not just his disdain for officers and their lack of disconnect with the realities of war but also wounded soldiers with scars and amputated body parts being part of this air of decadence. There is also a scene towards the third act where Sgt. Steiner and his platoon try to return to their base through Soviet territory where they encounter Soviet women soldiers as one of them would try to have his way only to get a rude awakening. It’s a moment that shows Sgt. Steiner being aware of the inhumanity that he sees as well as what he doesn’t want to do. The dramatic moments that Peckinpah create are quite fascinating such as a meeting into the decision into whether Cpt. Stransky deserves the Iron Cross as it play more into not just an air of cynicism towards war but also the de-value of what honor means. Overall, Peckinpah creates a harrowing yet confrontational film about a class warfare from within between German officers and soldiers during World War II.
Cinematographer John Coquillon does brilliant work with the film‘s grimy yet intoxicating cinematography from the way many of the daytime exteriors are presented as well as the lighting for the scenes inside the bunkers as well as the sense of artificiality in the hospital sequence. Editors Michael Ellis, Murray Jordan, Tony Lawson, and Herbert Taschner do amazing work with the editing with its usage of slow-motion cuts, stylish transitional dissolves, jump-cuts, and other stylish cuts to play into the action as well as the drama. Production designers Brian Ackland-Snow and Ted Haworth, with art director Veljko Despotovic, do excellent work with the look of the bunkers and trenches as well as the look of the hospital and some of the ruined buildings where the Nazi officers do their politicking behind the scenes.
Makeup supervisor Colin Arthur does terrific work with the look of some of the wounded soldiers in the hospital sequence as it play into some of the surreal elements Sgt. Steiner encounters. Sound editor Rodney Holland and sound mixer David Hildyard do superb work with the layer of sounds in the film as it play into the chaos of the battlefield as well as the sense of fear in how shells and gunfire sound from inside the bunkers. The film’s music by Ernest Gold is fantastic for its bombastic orchestral score with some cadence-like drumming in the background as it play into the horrors of war while the soundtrack also includes some German folk pieces from those times.
The film’s marvelous cast include some notable small roles from Slavko Stimac as a Russian boy Sgt. Steiner and his platoon capture and let him become a loyal servant that they would care for, Veronique Vendell as a Soviet soldier whom Sgt. Steiner and his platoon would deal with as they would make a bargain with her after one of his soldiers would do something wrong, Michael Nowka as the young Private Dietz who is new to the platoon as he would gain their respect through his determination, Arthur Brauss as another newcomer in Private Zoll who is brought into the platoon by Captain Stransky as he raises many of the platoon’s suspicions, and Igor Galo as Lieutenant Meyer as an officer Sgt. Steiner and his platoon admire and respect as they would give him a birthday celebration. Other notable small roles include Burkhard Dreist, Vadim Glowna, and Dieter Schidor as a trio of privates that are part of Sgt. Steiner’s platoon who are all men of great skill.
Fred Stillkrauth is terrific as Corporal Karl “Schnurrbart” Reisenauer as the second-in-command of Sgt. Steiner’s platoon whom Steiner goes to for suggestions while Klaus Lowitsch is superb as Cpl. Kruger as a wildcard solider who wears a Soviet cap as he despises the Soviets while knowing how to bullshit them. Roger Fritz is fantastic as Lt. Triebig as a closeted homosexual officer who is blackmailed by Captain Stransky to do his bidding as he would also make decisions that would impact the entire squad. Senta Berger is wonderful as Eva as a nurse who would watch over Sgt. Steiner during his time at the hospital as well as be a lover of him during that time. David Warner is excellent as Captain Kiesel as a hardened officer who has been in and out of the battlefield as he despises Captain Stransky while becoming quite cynical about war though still be loyal to Colonel Brandt.
James Mason is brilliant as Colonel Brandt as an officer who is upper class but understands the role he has to play in war as he is sympathetic to Sgt. Steiner’s views but is more hopeful about the future of life after war. Maximillian Schell is amazing as Captain Stransky as aristocratic Prussian officer who craves glory and prestige as he uses his influence and class status to get what he wants while dealing with the more grounded Sgt. Steiner whom he sees as an opponent as Schell definitely display that utter arrogance into a man that cares more about a fucking medal than the respect of his soldiers. Finally, there’s James Coburn in an incredible performance as Sgt. Rolf Steiner as a soldier who has fought a lot of wars and has gained a lot of respect where he copes with the many reasons to fight and the lack of honor that is emerging as it’s one of Coburn’s finest performances in his career.
Cross of Iron is a tremendous film from Sam Peckinpah that features great performances from James Coburn, Maximillian Schell, and James Mason. Along with a fantastic supporting cast, evocative visuals, a chilling score, and captivating themes on war, honor, and class. It’s a war movie that showcases what is happening behind the scenes as what some are willing to do and what they won’t do in and out of the battlefield. In the end, Cross of Iron is a phenomenal film from Sam Peckinpah.
Sam Peckinpah Films: The Deadly Companions - Ride the High Country - Major Dundee - Noon Wine - The Wild Bunch - The Ballad of Cable Hogue - Straw Dogs - Junior Bonner - The Getaway - Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid - Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia - The Killer Elite - Convoy - The Osterman Weekend - The Auteurs #62: Sam Peckinpah
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