13 July 2022

Cross of Iron

Sam Peckinpah went to Yugoslavia to shoot Cross of Iron in 1976.  The picture was financed through some complicated cross-collateralization, and production shut down without warning when the money ran out.  The movie was put together from footage shot up to that point – with the final scene staged on the fly, improvised by Peckinpah and his two leads, James Coburn and Maximilian Schell: “I will show you where the iron crosses grow.”

Be that as it may, the picture feels pretty complete, and you don’t get the sense of gaping holes, but there’s still a nagging suspicion (the same thing you have with Major Dundee) that something fuller is eluding you.  On the other hand, the movie doesn’t seem characteristically Peckinpah, either.  There’s the Russian kid, the innocent, the sacrificial lamb, who might conjure up Angel in The Wild Bunch, or Elsa in Ride the High Country, but the larger canvas, the history, the broken faith, Steve Judd and Gil Westrum, Dundee and Tyreen, Pike and Deke Thornton, Garrett and the Kid, even Bennie and Elita in Alfredo Garcia, is noticeably absent.  In an odd way, Cross of Iron is maybe a prologue, thematically.  The defining moment, beforehand.

Of course, I’m talking about this as if you know the storyline and characters in Cross of Iron, or as if you know all of Peckinpah’s movies back to front, and not everybody is as obsessed as I am.  Let’s be honest, one Quentin Tarantino is one too many.  So, briefly, Cross of Iron takes place in 1943, in the Crimea; the Germans are being pushed back relentlessly by the Russians, and the Wehrmacht is fighting a rearguard action.  The story’s told from the German POV.  Steiner, the platoon sergeant (the James Coburn character), realizes it’s a losing battle, but fights on anyway.

“Do you believe in God, Sergeant?”

“I believe God is a sadist, but doesn’t know it.”

Stransky, the Junker from the officer class (Max Schell) is desperate to win the Iron Cross, and ready to lie for it.

“I tell you a man’s true destiny is not all this childbirth and chocolate, but to rule and to fight.”

Steiner is a warrior; Stransky is a blowhard.


Stransky puts together a false report, taking credit from a dead man to get the Iron Cross.  Steiner refuses to sign off on it.  Stransky abandons Steiner and his men, when the Wehrmacht retreats, leaving the platoon to fight their way back from behind Russian lines, and then – when they’ve almost made it, spoiler alert - tries to gun them down with friendly fire.  Basically, that’s it.

Being as it’s a Peckinpah, however, you get a lot of sidebar.  Somebody throws a shoe at a rat, for example, and Max Schell reprimands him: “Be gentle with my Gigi.”

James Mason, the colonel, orders his captain, David Warner, to the rear.

“I’m prepared to disobey that order, Sir.”

“You’ve been around Steiner too long.”

Steiner reports.

“Two killed, one missing.”

“Two killed, how?”

“Bullets.  Mortar fire, artillery, heavy salvos.  Bad luck, terminal syphilis.  The usual things.”

The actual war stuff is frightening, and incoherent.  Action is very hard to do, both on the page, and in the movies.  We see way too many movies where you can’t tell who’s who, or what’s going on.  Way of the Gun is an exception, because the guy channels The Wild Bunch.  Cross of Iron is intentionally confusing.  Everything is loud, and your kinesthetic sense shuts down.  It’s all adrenaline and endorphins. 

Peckinpah bent the rules of physical cinema, and invented new ones.  Steiner says it best, in a reflective moment. “A man is generally who he feels himself to be.”  Peckinpah tempted Fate, and lost.  God damn, but I miss him.


  1. David -- Enjoyed the post. I think I've seen all of Peckinpah's movies *except* Cross of Iron.

    I miss him too.

  2. John : CONVOY is clearly junk, and while OSTERMAN WEEKEND and KILLER ELITE definitely have their moments, they're still lesser material. CROSS OF IRON isn't in a class with ALFREDO GARCIA, say, or GARRETT, but for later Peckinpah, it's well worth seeing.

  3. Tarantino… He is so over-rated, but so many viewers are too dazzled by his camera work to mind gaping holes and anachronisms. When I was watching the Django DVD, I began counting historical errors. Afterwards, I watched the director's interview where Tarantino bragged about his research, indicating his was one of the most accurately researched movies ever.

    As Bill Cosby's Noah might say… Riiiiiiiiight.

    1. This above isn't really anonymous, but Blogger is ignoring me. — Leigh

    2. I think Tarantino is a fanboy, and with respect, I feel much the same way about Scorsese. These are guys who are in love with movies. So am I, and I recognize movies aren't life, but there's a story that John Milius would take a girl to see THE SEARCHERS on a first date, and if she didn't get it, he ghosted her. I can almost understand, but there IS a life beyond. We need the obsessives; we don't have to imitate them.


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