[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]
War is an inescapably personal experience in Cross of Iron. Nearly always from middle-shot or closer, the soldiers see the enemy they fight: many die in the embraces of their killers. No field-size moving masses of men, no distant artillery, no “targets” and “objectives.” In Peckinpah’s war there are only people—confused, afraid, in pain, screaming for survival. Peckinpah carefully chooses images emblematic of the reality of war: a soldier’s neck emptying blood into the muddy water where he lies dead; a body that has been run over so many times it has become part of the road. The awful power of his combat scenes is heightened by contrasting qualities of light and sound for the out-of-combat sequences: the warm greens and yellows in the hospital scenes and in the idyllic field to which Sergeant Rolf Steyner’s platoon escapes after a hopeless battle in a burnt-out factory contrast starkly with the cold greens, dusty grays, muddy browns of the battle zone. The absolute silence before each of several attacks in the film serves to emphasize the fury of what follows. Never has Peckinpah’s rhythmic cutting between similar violent acts been so effective in establishing the inevitability and terrible beauty of the sense of community in the meeting—and the meting-out of death.
Cross of Iron reminds me—in both its realism and its poetry of character—of Donald Siegel’s Hell Is for Heroes: each film presents a portrait of a maverick professional soldier whose competence in his work is the best hope of his society. But the motivations of Steve McQueen’s Reese, in Siegel’s film, though ultimately opaque, have a lot to do with hate and alienation. While James Coburn’s Steyner, in Peckinpah’s movie, hates all officers regardless of class or degree of enlightenment, it is still clear that his effectiveness as a soldier has more to do with belonging than with alienation. Clearly not all officers are aristocratic bastards like the Prussian Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell); rather, Steyner’s distaste for officers as a class appears grounded in the fact that they are men apart, not involved in the essential brotherhood of soldiers. The disruption Stransky’s appearance bodes to Steyner’s community of soldiery is signaled by Peckinpah’s frequent cutting from Stransky to a violent explosion. Indeed, it often seems as if Stransky is pursued by explosions: they mark his coming and going, even punctuate his conversation. Seeking to ingratiate himself upon his arrival on the Russian front, Stransky mocks himself as “a heroic horse’s ass,” and laughs; but twice the laugh turns to a violent grimace and flinch as a nearby blast gives the lie to his self-conferred “heroism.” During a crucial talk between Stransky and Steyner about elitism, individuality, and Der Führer, echoes of both Die Meistersinger and Das Horst Wessel Lied are half-heard beneath their voices; and then an air raid commences just at the end of their talk, as if an ordained correlative to their ideas and feelings. Stransky obsessively pursues his goal of becoming a decorated hero, albeit without exposing himself to any danger; while Steyner, by contrast, has found a kind of meaning in the company of men in war. He repeatedly hallucinates the faces of his platoon while in hospital recuperating from wounds; and when one of them shows up among a truckload of men headed back to the front, Steyner is quick to decide to return. Half-comprehending, the nurse (Senta Berger) with whom he has spent some pleasant days and at least one night questions his decision: “Do you love it? Or are you afraid of what you would be without it?”
Steyner doesn’t answer; but Peckinpah does, with a closeup of Steyner’s face against the absolutely blank Limbo of an offwhite wall. He does prefer “the company of men,” in a way that Stransky, who uses that phrase to taunt his homosexual adjutant and orderly, cannot begin to understand or appreciate. It’s a community in which a scared soldier’s panic can be stopped by the unexpected shock of a comrade’s rough kiss (no traditional “Thanks, I needed that” slap in the face); in which war is referred to as “this thing” and called by its name only when Steyner and his men ironically quote high-minded German thinkers on the subject; in which there is no romance, and soldiers who insist on seeing a Russian detachment of women as objects of sexuality rather than enemy troops pay for their folly in blood; in which the only meaningful and necessary response to a soldier’s terror (“The others are dead … I’ve been here alone for three hours … I don’t ever want to be alone again”) is a gentle, firm embrace. Captain Stransky’s only companions are a trench rat and the homosexual toady he terrorizes into allegiance; and he will merit no better, until he has scrambled for survival in the same way he scrambles for the coveted medal. When Steyner fires a few rounds into the dusty curtains alongside the captain’s bunk near the end, Stransky flinches—the same kind of flinch jerked out of him by gunfire in his first scene. And he finally provokes Steyner’s Shavian cosmic laughter at how ill-equipped he is to learn the lesson of men in war: Real heroism, and even just competent soldiering, has nothing at all to do with class or breeding, everything to do with companionship and—yes—love.
CROSS OF IRON
Direction: Sam Peckinpah. Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein and Walter Kelley & James Hamilton, after the novel by Willi Heinrich. Cinematography: John Coquillon. Production design: Ted Haworth. Editing: Tony Lawson, Murray Jordan, Michael Ellis. Music: Ernest Gold. Production: Alex Winitsky, Arlene Sellers.
The players. James Coburn, Maximilian Schell, James Mason, David Warner, Klaus Löwitsch, Dieter Schidor, Senta Berger, Arthur Brauss, Veronique Vendell.
© 1977 Robert C. Cumbow