5 / 5 stars
I began The Quirky Queue in an effort to share with film fans some of the more cultish, odd and just plain bizarre movies, and to reignite interest in the forgotten and unique. This month’s pick, Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron, falls into the latter categories. Largely ignored in a filmography that includes the masterwork revisionist western The Wild Bunch, and the new Hollywood violence of Straw Dogs, Cross of Iron is one of Peckinpah’s more powerful anti-war, anti-violence entries. It not only boasts an all-star cast, but Peckinpah’s slick and imaginative filmmaking, the style that not only propelled him to stardom and critical acclaim. (Click on the movie poster for a closer look.)
Cross of Iron is unique most obviously by way of plot. It is perhaps the only American-made World War II film that does not include an American character, choosing instead to focus action on the extremely bloody Russian-German front. James Coburn, a fantastic actor occasionally as forgotten as this movie, plays the sympathetic leader of a small platoon of German soldiers more interested in returning home alive and intact than supporting a thousand-year Reich. His new commanding officer, a Prussian played by Maximillian Schell, is most interested in being awarded the coveted Iron Cross medal in order to prove to his military family that he is worthy of being their progeny. When Coburn’s commander leads his platoon on a successful raid that Schell wants to take credit for, the former refuses to bend the truth, leading to a contest of wills that threatens both of their lives. Rounding out the cast are James Mason and David Warner as Nazis awaiting the inevitable loss of a war gotten out of hand.
History buffs will be the first to point out inaccuracies in setting and character. Many all over the Internet have complained about the sympathetic portrayals of the German soldiers (Who can really hate James Mason?) as well as the film’s lack of the realistic volatility that was the earmark of the Russian-German front. Although this point of view is well founded, it still does not diminish the profundity of the drama and themes of Cross of Iron. (And if you are one of the nitpicking historians, I highly recommend the brutal 1985 Russian film Come and See.)
Apart from the cast, the real star of Cross of Iron is Peckinpah’s camerawork and editing. It’s as brilliant and original as ever, reflected in an especially harrowing sequence where Coburn is recovering from minor injuries in a veterans’ hospital. The frenetic, out-of-order editing, combined with Coburn’s acting chops, is one of the most convincing and sublime representations of post-traumatic stress disorder ever put to film. The sequence even gives Lumet’s groundbreaking The Pawnbroker a run for its money and is one of the top reasons I highly recommend the film.
Combining Pecknipah’s always-ingenious portrayal of violence without glorification and a wonderfully chaotic ending, Cross of Iron is a must for any student or fan of the craft, especially in a world where violence and war at the movies have become as prevalent as popcorn and cotton candy.