Friday, February 22, 2013

Solomon's Discs: Cross of Iron (1977)

Hello, Readers Mine!

Well, the grad. school tradition of DVD's over live TV continues, as does my self-directed study of war films. This week, I watched Cross of Iron, by the late, great Sam Peckinpah (aka, the guy Quentin Tarantino has been trying - and failing - to be for his entire career.)

James Coburn as Unteroffizer Feldwebel Rolf Steiner in Cross of Iron
Cross of Iron was Peckinpah's anti-penultimate film, and the only war film that he ever made. Peckinpah is best known for his work in the western genre with such classics as Ride the High Country (1962), The Wild Bunch (1969), and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), and for his sometimes hyper-realistic portrayals of violence. During filming for The Wild Bunch he famously rejected the Warner Brothers gunfire sound effects, which had remained unchanged since the 1930s, and demanded that new effects be recorded using each type of weapon which would appear in the in the film, thus bringing a level of realism to the screen that had never been seen before. Peckinpah's obsession with realism continued with Cross of Iron, which was largely filmed in Yugoslavia because the Yougoslav army had preserved a multitude of World War II era weapons, including Soviet T-34 tanks, specifically for use in films. The German and Soviet uniforms, weapons, vehicles and tanks are all period-accurate, something that was particularly rare at the time (for example, see Patton (1970), where Rommel's 1942 Afrika Korps is using M-47 and M-48 "Patton" tanks, which were not produced until 1951, and were, you know, American tanks).

Interestingly enough, despite the almost continual skirmishes, attacks, counterattacks, shelling, etc that occurs throughout the film, the story has very little to do with the war, and is instead an examination of class. Sargent Rolf Steiner (James Coburn) is a soldier's soldier, the quintessential and mythologized NCO who survives whatever gets thrown at him, keeps his platoon alive, and is only fully alive when he's at war. His nemesis is Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell), a member of the Prussian officer-aristocracy, who has transferred from a cushy, safe post in southern France to the Russian Front in late 1943, where the Red Army was steadily throwing the Wehrmacht out of the Taman Peninsula. Stransky wants to win the Iron Cross, a medal for bravery highly prized by the Prussian aristocracy, but seen as so just so much metal by fighting men like Steiner and his regimental commander, Colonel Brant (who, in the finest tradition of WWII films, is played by the very British James Mason). Despite his overweening pride in his ancestry, Stransky turns out to be a miserable failure as a line officer, and so blackmails his homosexual adjutant into signing a false statement qualifying him for the Iron Cross, and also puts Steiner's name on the necessary forms. Steiner, proletarian to his core but well educated, and possessing a command of poetry and philosophy, refuses to corroborate Steiner's story.

In the mist of almost daily death and danger, Stransky plays out his petty game, because he cannot face his family if he returns form the war without the Iron Cross. Stransky believes that after the war things will go back to the way they have always been, with the aristocracy at the top of the socio-political heap and everyone else below. Steiner knows that the war has blasted all of that apart for good, and his opinion of the upper class both within and without the army is summed up in the line "I hate all officers." Cross of Iron is an astonishing film, and as with all of Peckinpah's work, asks probing questions about the nature of manhood and masculinity. Steiner, the hard-working, hard-fighting proletarian is full of all of the many virtues, from bravery to strength to sexual prowess to manly love for the men under his care. Steiner is cold, manipulative, self-centered, and obsessed with appearances above all. Peckinpah gives the viewer a powerful, if broadly drawn psychodrama, and reveals the class structure not just of the Wehrmacht  but of all armies, particularly during World War II, when the separation and distinction between officers and enlisted men was rigidly maintained even by the American "citizen-soldier" Army. Coburn delivers an incredible performance as Steiner, and is one of the Great Sergeants of war films, right up there with Lee Marvin, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Audie Murphy.

Cross of Iron was sited by Tarantino as his inspiration for The Inglourious Basterds (2009), and although the film did porly upon its release in 1977, Cross of Iron's reputation has been on the rise for the past decade or so. The film's portrayal of combat is highly realistic, especially for the time, with battle scenes that are desperate, confused, frantic, and bloody. It's not for everyone, but for anyone interested in the war film genre, Cross of Iron is a must see.

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