Although he’s best remembered for films such as The Wild Bunch, it’s Sam Peckinpah’s 1977 anti-war film, Cross Of Iron, that remains my favorite. His only war film, it went largely unnoticed, due to the release of Star Wars , released the same year. America had just ended it’s conflict in Vietnam, and wasn’t exactly receptive to a war film that was bleak, gritty, and showed the cold realities of war. After viewing it, Orson Welles hailed it as the most realistic war film he had seen, since All Quiet On The Western Front.
The film is set during WWIi on the eastern front, shortly following the massive German defeat at Stalingrad. It follows a platoon of German soldiers, who struggle just to survive on a daily basis. Which might have been the reason this film wasn’t popular, upon it’s initial release. Most American features about WWII up to this point had celebrated their own victories, the brave GI overcoming odds to win the day. An American film about German soldiers? A very interesting approach, showing humanity’s struggle exist upon all sides of life. Peckinpah illustrates this through impressively filmed batt sequences, and a chilling look at the unknown actions of what goes on behind enemy lines.
The films also contains a class struggle, between two men. A hardened combat veteran named Sgt. Steiner, played by James Coburn. The ‘old soldier’ who cares for his men, and is fearless in the face of combat. He somewhat represents the working class, the proletariat.
His rival on the other hand, is Captain Stransky, played by Maximillian Schell. He is the posh aristocrat, self absorbed, and egotistical. His only ambition is to win an Iron Cross, and he doesn’t care what he has to do to get one. Even if it meets the death of the men he’s put in charge of. As opposed to Steiner who plays the proletariat, Stransky is the ruling class, the bourgeoisie personified.
Their conflicts play upon feelings of xenophobia, as well as honorable and dishonorable men. Although many critics felt most of the battle scenes robbed the viewers of any story, it’s the struggle between these two men that hold the film together. It’s the exact same struggle of wills that made Stanley Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory , such a powerful film.
An unofficial Sequel would appear years later entitled Breakthrough. Although it had an impressive cast that included Robert Mitchum and Richard Burton, it failed to be the dark, brooding tale its predecessor was. Cross Of Iron remains not only one of the darkest war films of all time, but also one of the very best.