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Cross Of Iron (1977, UK/West Germany)

23/02/2011

Director: Sam Peckinpah   Starring: James Coburn, James Mason, Maximillian Schell, David Warner

In 1977, with the events of the conflict still very much a part of living memory, how do you make a Second World War film that portrays the German army in a sympathetic light? First off, set it on the Russian front, it is after all much easier to root for the Wermacht when they are pitted against the Commies, especially during the Cold War. Then you could focus the action on a veteran NCO in the Wermacht who has no love and less patience for the politics and ambitions of his commanding officers and whose primary concern is doing his best by the men under his care. If you really wanted to sell it, you could get James Coburn to play the aforementioned NCO and make sure he gets the back up of some extraordinary acting talent to help him.

The result is an astonishing treatise on the futility and inevitability of war. Sergeant Steiner (Coburn) is a powerful reminder that while the political masters of the German war machine were ideologically driven by their Nazi ideals a lot of the men on the ground were professional soldiers doing their duty to their country but more importantly doing their duty to each other. Steiner exhibits nothing but contempt for the politically minded members of his command staff, a breed epitomised in the newly arrived Captain Stransky who has requested a transfer to the Russian front so that he can win himself an Iron Cross and be the toast of high society in Germany.

This contrast between the ideological motivations of Stransky and the practical considerations of Steiner is just one of many differences highlighted by the film. It’s a clash of opposites: age and experience versus the boldness of youth, the privileged ruling class versus the inevitably exploited working class, selfish personal ambition versus self sacrifice and duty. These antagonistic forces are a microcosm for the conflict that rages around the protagonists as they begin to turn on each other.

As you might expect, Peckinpah lives up to his reputation for action set pieces. His trademark slow-motion shoot outs really bring home the blood and chaos of warfare, a cacophony of bullets, explosions and screams. Was Peckinpah the first director to capture the dark beauty inherent in violence? No, probably not, but he does have a flair for it and the slow-mo cascades of ejected cartridges from machine guns on show here testify to his eye for action. That said, it’s not flippant about the battles in any way. The consequences of every encounter are felt throughout the film.

The performances are also superb. Coburn is amazing as Steiner, every ounce the grizzled veteran of years of warfare, his contempt for the follies of his commanders oozing from every pore. James Mason and David Warner are officers forced to tread the line between supporting Steiner and obeying their own orders and Maximillian Schell is brilliant as the weasily, self serving Stransky. The non-German members of the cast do attempt German accents to varying degrees but in a genius move they do not overstretch it and seem to have had instructions to only do what they could achieve convincingly. To this end, while they have a sufficient Germanic twang to maintain the illusion that they are in the Wermacht they don’t go to ridiculous extremes. It works very well. It could have so easily slipped into either ‘Allo ‘Allo territory or (perhaps worse) the plummy what-ho accents on display in something like The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas.

Bookended with stock footage and photos of some of the atrocities carried out during the war alongside a German childrens song it’s obvious where Peckinpah stands when it comes to war, a message reinforced from the lips and actions of Steiner throughout the film. Presumably this is also an echo of the message of the original novel (The Willing Flesh by Willi Heinrich) upon which the film is based. Among the carnage there are moments of genuine poignancy and the overwhelming message is that there is nothing heroic about warfare, that all the medal chasing and hero-fantasies of those who participate in warfare are just another indication of it’s inevitability and utter futility.

Approaching its subject with a bold honesty, this is essential viewing.

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