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  Cross of Iron The Good German
Year: 1977
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Stars: James Coburn, Maximilian Schell, James Mason, David Warner, Klaus Löwitsch, Vadim Glowna, Roger Fritz, Dieter Schidor, Burkhard Dreist, Feed Stillkraut, Michael Nowka, Véronique Vendell, Arthur Brauss, Senta Berger
Genre: WarBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 2 votes)
Review: It is 1943 and World War II is raging in Europe; at the Russian Front the Nazis have hit trouble and are planning their retreat, even as some of their officers believe the possibility of reaching Moscow is within their grasp. One of the German corporals, Rolf Steiner (James Coburn) has taken some of his men out on a reconnaissance mission, and they found some Soviets all right - they silently killed them as well. But there was one person Steiner was reluctant to execute, a young boy dressed in uniform, as even he is not keen on killing children, no matter his orders. Others are not so unwilling...

Cross of Iron was the only war film ever directed by Sam Peckinpah, which you may find surprising given the opportunities the genre offered for him to shoot slow motion parades of actors and stuntmen falling about as they are blown up or shot. Doubly surprising then, that such a man's man style of film, where the themes of the lone voice trying to stand out against the din of battle would have appealed to the director, would only attract him the once, but Westerns were what he was perhaps best suited for. Regarding Cross of Iron, it was easy to grow dissastisfied with what was on the surface densely plotted and visually lacking variety.

Amongst all the distractions and alternate routes through the conflict it was detailing, there was one thing you could latch on to and that was the rivalry between Steiner and his superior, Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell), who upgrades Steiner to a Sergeant to the utter lack of appreciation of the soldier. This attracted a measure of controversy in that it was basically illustrating the trials and tribulaltions of the German army, and in some views this was an endorsement of the Nazis, especially in the full-blooded, grimy romance of Peckinpah's vision, but Steiner is the "goodie" simply because he is sickened by all he sees around him.

If anything, with its plentiful violence offered up at the drop of a hat, Cross of Iron looked to appeal to the kind of person who enjoyed the paperback war stories of Sven Hassel and his ilk, in spite of its pretensions to be saying something important about the ordeal. The film positively revelled in the sense of futility in the face of impending doom, this being told from the side of the losers, and Coburn expertly conveyed that world-weariness that could switch to righteous anger with the right prompting. Stransky, however, is there for the glory, or what he perceives it to be: the award of the Iron Cross, something Steiner sees through will ill-disguised contempt; recognising the man has seen through him too, Stransky begins to scheme.

Steiner does get a reprieve from the hell when he is injured, resulting in a spell of artiness as Peckinpah plays around with his perception and memory, but mainly this is the opportunity to get close to an attractive nurse, Eva (Senta Berger). When the chance comes to go back to the front, he takes it in spite of being allowed not to, living up to the old man o' war clichés that the film takes as immovable truths, but Coburn understood his director wished him to live up to that image. This is not a movie for namby-pamby peaceniks, even if you're on the wrong side it implies you owe it to yourself to fight, but the story gets bogged down in the middle stages with glassy eyed speeches and brittle cynicism. It recovers once Steiner and his troops are caught behind enemy lines, leaving the strongest impression once this is over of the self-destruction of a nation that takes up arms, and the dubious benefits of the macho ethic that it courts. Music by Ernest Gold.

[Optimum's Blu-ray brings not only a slick presentation to a down and dirty film, but a host of featurettes on Peckinpah and this movie.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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Sam Peckinpah  (1925 - 1984)

American writer and director, a hard-drinking, producer-hating maverick who was as much reviled as he was admired. After a spell in the armed forces, he moved into television with a succession of westerns, and graduated to film with The Deadly Companions and cult classic Ride the High Country. When he worked on Major Dundee, the problems started, and, as would happen many times subsequently, the film was recut against his wishes.

In 1969, Peckinpah won huge respect for The Wild Bunch, which saw him employ the vivid, bloody violence that would become his trademark. He spent the seventies crafting a series of notable thrillers and westerns, such as the humorous Ballad of Cable Hogue, the reflective Junior Bonner, controversial Straw Dogs, hit Steve McQueen vehicle The Getaway, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, the intense, one-of-a-kind Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, The Killer Elite, WWII story Cross of Iron, and comparitively light hearted Convoy.

Throughout this decade, Peckinpah's reputation amongst studios dropped to such an extent that he could barely find work by the eighties, and his last film, The Osterman Weekend, represented an attempt to reclaim past glories. Sadly, he died shortly after it was completed, while planning to bring an original Stephen King script to the screen. As an actor, he can be seen in friend Don Siegel's Invasion of the Bodysnatchers and Monte Hellman's China 9 Liberty 37.

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