Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Cross of Iron

I'm tempted to call Cross of Iron (1977) "All Quiet on the Eastern Front." After all, it is about German soldiers slugging it out in the trenches (of World War II this time) as they experience firsthand the futility of warfare and the senseless loss of life. Like Paul Baumer, they live, fight, and die in the mud, smoke, dirt and are just worn out and exhausted.

When the German colonel played by James Mason asks what they will do when they lose this war, his subordinate David Warner has the answer ready for him: "Prepare for the next one."

But this is a Sam Peckinpah movie, and I don't think any of his movies could be described as "quiet." When the filmmaker behind The Wild Bunch and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia creates a war movie, you can be damn sure he'll give us a maelstrom and enough explosions to make Michael Bay blush.

Peckinpah strips away anything resembling glory or heroism. The combat does not look fun or exciting but terrifying, dehumanizing, chaotic, and relentless. Swarms of men rush from all sides, get tangled in barbed wire, step on landmines, get bayoneted, etc. It's a meat grinder, and of course, Peckinpah is still using his slow motion camera, so we linger on the falling and contorting bodies.

On with the plot. Cross of Iron follows a platoon of German soldiers in Russia in 1943. The main character is Sgt. Steiner (James Coburn), a veteran who knows the German cause is lost but values the lives of his men. His new commanding officer is Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell), a Bavarian aristocrat who requested a transfer to Russia so he could win the Iron Cross, the highest German decoration for heroism. The tension between the cynical, weary Steiner and the glory-seeking Stransky is the thread on which the movie hangs.

Cross of Iron is an antiwar film. These Germans are fighting for a cause they know is lost, and all the war brings is death and destruction. Peckinpah also touches on class warfare. For Stransky, the war is a chance to win acclaim, return home a conquering hero to inflate his status. The regular soldier is just a pawn for him to achieve that. For Steiner, the fighting is useless; the only thing worth doing is surviving. The enlisted man is his brother.

Steiner has already won the Iron Cross, but he calls it a "worthless piece of metal" and asks Stransky why he wants it. Stransky answers, "It's not worthless to me."

Cross of Iron covers the massive Eastern Front campaign, but strangely enough, it feels claustrophobic. Those trenches aren't very spacious, and when in enemy territory, surrounded by an advancing army, the characters feel trapped and overwhelmed. It's like Hell on Earth.

Like other Peckinpah works, there are quiet moments, especially among Steiner and his men. Going back to the class angle, they are mostly salt-of-the-earth, regular working class Germans. They're cannon fodder, sent off to die for a pointless because men like Stransky are in charge. Yet, they try to keep their dignity as well as their lives, and they share a camaraderie that makes their ultimate fates heartrending.

The war is lost, their leaders have betrayed them, and they will most likely die horribly, but they have each other.

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