If war is chaos, then so is filmmaking, particularly when the director is the already notorious Sam Peckinpah whose films were as known for their violence and nihilism as he was himself for his self-destructive drinking, the shoot of Cross of Iron periodically interrupted for him to recover from overindulgence on Slivovitz, the plum brandy he took a liking to during the three months of location shooting in Yugoslavia.
Based on Willi Heinrich’s 1955 novel Das Geduldige Fleisch (The Willing Flesh), published in America in 1956 renamed as Cross of Iron, it is presumed the inspiration for Rolf Steiner was Johann Schwerdfeger, a German platoon leader awarded the Knight’s Cross in May 1943 who had served in the Taman Peninsula on the Black Sea, the area of the Eastern Front on the border of Russia where the novel and Peckinpah’s 1977 film are set.
A co-production between Britain and Germany where it was released as Das Eiserne Kreuz, the opening of the film is deceptive in its tone of celebration, women and children singing a traditional folk song of a boy who leaves home and returns a man set against stock footage of flag parades and demonstrations of military might which slowly change to the battlefields and bombs of the front, the truth of war.
Told through the eyes of Corporal Rolf Steiner (The Magnificent Seven’s James Coburn), he is an experienced soldier who oversees a platoon on that front line, standing their ground against encroaching Russian forces with minimal resources and support; subjected to near constant shelling which takes a toll on the men, a new officer arrives to take command above him, Captain Stransky, the enmity between the two soldiers immediate and unrelenting.
Stransky (The Black Hole’s Maximillian Schell) an odious and assured Prussian aristocrat who sees this transfer as an opportunity to be awarded the Iron Cross he covets, requiring a conspicuous act of bravery to be witnessed and documented, he is the antithesis of Steiner, a man weary of war who has more in common with the ranking officer who sits above them both, Colonel Brandt (‘Salem’s Lot’s James Mason) and Steiner both resigned to their duties but resolved to see them through.
Fully aware of what war entails and that few of them, if any, will make it through let alone be honoured for their actions, Steiner not only does what he can to take care of his men but also does the same for the enemy; a young Russian boy found and taken back to their camp after a raid, Stransky orders him shot as a matter of course but Steiner refuses, attempting instead to get the boy back over the lines, a futile act of kindness in a world of madness.
The battle scenes many and bloody, they are shot with a deliberate disregard for narrative clarity, panicked soldiers firing through smoke not knowing if their targets are friend or foe, explosions ringing in their ears, Cross of Iron a war movie but not one of excitement and heroism so much as one which is traumatic, ugly and relentless, Oberst serving as the conscience of the film as he tells his adjutant Kiesel (Time Bandits’ David Warner) that as a good man he must survive so a better Germany can be born when this one inevitably dies.
Restored for Blu-ray as part of StudioCanal’s Vintage Classics range, Cross of Iron contains a plethora of new and archive supplementary features bringing stories from the trenches, including archive audio interviews, footage from a screening attended by Coburn and Warner, multiple extensive galleries containing several hundred monochrome and colour stills from the production, an audio commentary from film historian and Peckinpah expert Mike Siegel and his extended documentary Passion and Poetry: Sam Peckinpah’s War.