On the 6th of June the blu-ray of Sam Peckinpah’s world war II drama Cross of Iron drops and I’ve been luck enough to get hold of an advanced copy courtesy of Optimum Home Entertainment. Peckinpah is best known for his work in the western films genre with The Wild Bunch often sighted as the greatest western ever made. An opinion I personally thoroughly endorse. However for me Peckinpah’s strength was his ability to show men at in every stage of human emotion. Often sighted as a difficult character himself Peckinpah’s life was blighted by his drug and alcohol abuse which lead to his often violent behaviour. During the making of The Getaway Peckinpah would often remark that “I cant direct when I’m sober“. This human weakness bleeds into the characters in his films.
Cross of Iron is Peckinpah’s only war film and had mixed box office, being very successful in Europe but failing badly in the US. As usual Peckinpah was never going to follow the conventional path of telling a heroic story of the allied forces. No instead he chooses to tell the story of a platoon of German soldiers stationed on the Eastern front in the latter stages of the war (1943). These soldiers know that defeat is coming and their main aim now is to survive until the end of the war and then hope their punishment is worth their efforts. The platoon is lead by Corporal Steiner (James Coburn) a veteran of this war and a man who is respected by his men because of his unflinching loyalty towards them and by his superiors for his ability to get the job done. Steiner is getting by as best he can and has the full backing of his commanding officer Colonel Brandt (James Mason) and his adjutant Captain Kiesel (David Warner). That is until Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell) arrives. Stransky is a aristocrat Prussian Officer who has transferred there for one reason only, to win the Iron Cross.
Stransky takes an instant dislike to Steiner, partly out of jealousy at his reputation as a soldier, but mostly because of his lack of respect for his commanding officers. Steiner has come to realise that the German forces need him a lot more than he needs them and he uses this to get at his superiors. Stransky’s lack of military tactical nous and his entitled cowardice cause Steiner to be badly injured and I’m going to leave plot points there as this film has little in the way of plot so saying more would be saying too much. What the film does have is mountains of story and character. This is most definitely a character study of men trapped in the worst kind of hell, just trying to survive by all means.
Like The Wild bunch the men featured in this film are not young men they are men who have experienced life and should be winding down by now but instead, because of events beyond their control they are forced to continue along a path that will lead most likely to madness or death. Its in the slower more intimate scenes that this film really shines. The battle scenes are very good and often very scattered and claustrophobic in their execution and you can see the influence they have in modern film makers style. You can see shades of Peckinpah in the work of directors like Zak Snyder, Quentin Tarantino and Walter Hill as well as Korean director Park Chan-Wook. His slow motion coupled with fast editing is seen as perfectly normal and standard nowadays but remember this film was made in 1977. When the film slows down and the men are in their bunkers is where the film lifts itself above most war films. The exchanges between Steiner and Stransky are battles of will that match any of the battles we see outside these bunkers and in the hands of a less skilled director or a less skilled cast these scenes would seem flat and dull. But in the hands of somebody as skilled as Peckinpah they are alive with tension, anger and even occasionally joy.
From an acting perspective this film is as good as you’ll see. James Coburn has never been better as Steiner who he plays as cool as they come, while also getting across the fact that he has tired of the war and his only interest now is his men and their survival. Maximilian Schell also delivers a career best performance as Stransky whom he plays note perfect as a sniveling, conniving, smarmy bastard. James Mason and David Warner also deliver great supporting performances and often add specks of humor as they bounce lines off each other perfectly.
The special features on this disc are plentiful with the stand out being the documentary Passion & Poetry – Sam Peckinpah’s War which gives a great insight into what Peckinpah was trying to say with this film. The Blu-ray is worth it for this documentary alone. There are cast interviews, numerous featurettes and a whole load more. There really is a lot crammed onto this disc. Also the Before & After restoration comparison is fascinating in a super geeky way.
For anybody who enjoys war films or is a fan of any of Sam Peckinpah’s other work this disc is an essential purchase, it just might be the most under appreciated war film in existence. Like all great war films it focuses not on the battle’s but on the men who fought and the impact it had on them. Peckinpah deals with these emotions in such a way that it makes this film a deeply compelling drama. I urge anybody and everybody to invest in this Blu-ray.
Cross of Iron Blu-ray is available 6th of June 2011 from Optimum Home Entertainment RRP: £19.99 Best price found £10.93 from www.amazon.co.uk
Special Features – Passion & Poetry – Sam Peckinpah’s War (46:00): A documentary by Mike Siegel featuring James Coburn, Senta Berger, David Warner, Vadim Glowna, Roger Fritz, Katy Haber & Sam Peckinpah. 5 featurettes with 1976 on set audio interviews: Sam Peckinpah (5:06) / James Coburn (5:30) / James Mason (6:05) / Maximilian Schell (4:35) / David Warner (3:14) / Featurette KRÜGER KISSES KERN (8:27) / Letters From Vadim & Sam Featurette (3:48) / Vadim & Sam – Son & Dad Featurette (5:55) / Cutting Room Floor Featurette (4:19) / Mike’s HomemoviesFeaturette – Steiner meets Kiesel again (7:16) / Steiner In Japan (2-3 mins) / Before & After Restoration Comparison / German Trailer (3:10) / USA TV-Spot (0:30) / USA/UK Trailer (3:42)
Anyway peace out suckers! 9/10