Senta Berger and James Coburn (Grab from DVD Beaver)

Researching anti-war films for an event, I remembered Cross of Iron. Unfortunately, the current DVD from StudioCanal doesn’t have any of the extras which come with Sam Peckinpah’s Hollywood Westerns – but we do now have several books on Peckinpah that fill in some of the background to the production. The Region 2 DVD is the full length version, the equivalent of 132 mins in the cinema. I think the film was shorter on its original US cinema release. (There is now a Blu-ray disc that does have extras.)

Cross of Iron is a war combat picture set during the German retreat from the Crimea in 1943. It is most definitely not a ‘Hollywood’ film. The production was backed by the final survivor of the UK studio system, EMI, and the package was put together by a German independent producer whose background was in soft porn films. He had little experience of what was intended as a $4 million war film to be shot in Yugoslavia and post-produced at EMI studios in Elstree. Since Peckinpah was by this stage seriously out of control on cocaine and booze and the German producer didn’t have enough money to pay for all the necessary props, the whole thing should have been a disaster. Fortunately the outline story of the book on which the script was based (by Willi Heinrich, published in 1956) was one that Sam could identify with and he became fascinated by the archive footage used in German and Russian propaganda films that he found in Koblenz and London. The opening credits sequence which utilised these archive findings is as good as any of those in Peckinpah’s more famous films. Perhaps only Saul Bass was as good at creating credit sequences as Peckinpah. Bass used graphics, but Sam used editing. Peckinpah followers will recognise the use of children in the credits montage – much as in The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs.

As far as I can see the film extends far beyond the scope of the novel. The Hollywood screenwriter Julius Epstein (of Casablanca fame) was first attached to the project, but Peckinpah managed to ditch him and conducted a complete re-write with James Hamilton and Walter Kelley, two men with wartime experience. The plot of the film is straightforward, focusing on a single Wehrmacht company that is gradually destroyed as the Russians advance. There are several set piece battles in which Peckinpah’s crew attempt to represent major engagements using military equipment (and presumably extras) from the Yugoslav forces. But the real drama is the interplay between Corporal Steiner (James Coburn) and his men and with the three officers played by James Mason, David Warner and Maximilian Schell. Mason plays an old style Prussian Army colonel, Warner (in his third Peckinpah role) plays a seemingly anachronistic cynical/philosophical captain, perpetually drunk. Steiner is a professional soldier who has won the Iron Cross, saving his colonel (Mason). He is now devoted to his men but otherwise alienated from the army. Captain Kransky (Schell) is a Prussian aristocrat, recently transferred from France, who seeks an Iron Cross because his family honour expects it – but Kransky is a coward. Combat is thus as much between Steiner and Kransky as between the Russians and the Germans. The Russians are largely a faceless enemy appearing in great numbers, but first a young boy soldier and then a group of female soldiers are captured by Steiner’s men. These encounters ‘humanise’ the enemy – but they also both end badly and the representation of the women helped to fuel the debate about Peckinpah’s alleged misogyny. I think it likely that the producer insisted on both the Russian women and the bedroom scene with Senta Berger who plays a nurse looking after Steiner in an army hospital. Even so, I suspect Peckinpah wasn’t too unhappy to include the scenes.

What is most interesting for me is the range of responses to the film. I’m relying for background detail on David Weddle’s 1996 book (If They Move . . . Kill’ Em). He tells us that the film flopped badly in the UK and the US, but that it was one of the most successful films of its period in Germany and Austria and generally did well on the international market. I was surprised to find that despite its initial problems, the film now has American fans – its IMDB rating is 7.5. Even so there are many detractors and even some of the Peckinpah scholars seem to call the film wrongly. Several critics refer to this as a film which either depicts ‘Nazi soldiers’ or which ‘de-Nazifies’ the Germans by making the enemy Soviet Communists in a Cold War film. Several US blog posts are just completely wrong in their observations. One I read suggested that “Schell is one of the few German actors in the film”. In fact the entire squad, apart from Steiner and the officers is peopled by quite well-known German actors, helping to explain perhaps why, along with the casting of Schell and Berger, German audiences so took to the film. The same blogger (and many other commentators) see Mason as personifying a ‘good German’ as if this was simply a cliché or something reprehensible. There are few ‘good’ or ‘bad’ characters as such apart from Captain Kransky. You could argue that Peckinpah helped to revise the Western by trying to present characters who have been brutalised by experience of violence in as humanistic a way as possible.

I did actually stumble across a neo-Nazi website which validated the film, but which called it a ‘Marxist’ representation of German history. Peckinpah’s politics were quite complex as far as I can see, but he wasn’t a Marxist – nor were his writers as far as I know. But Peckinpah is perhaps a combination of liberal and anarchist. The Peckinpah character here is Steiner who hates the army, officers in particular and his own government. His enemy, Kransky, is an aristocrat. The other officers are professional soldiers. There is only one Nazi amongst the soldiers and he is exposed and then tolerated. Stephen Prince, one of the best-known Peckinpah scholars makes a strange argument in his book Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies (1998) when he claims that Peckinpah misunderstood Brecht in using a famous quote from The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. The play is Brecht’s satire on Hitler’s rise to power which uses an allegory about a Chicago gangster. The quote used by Peckinpah is: “Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.” It appears at the end of the film (which lacks a clear narrative resolution, but implies that the main characters in the film are killed by Russian troops). Peckinpah was fond of quotes like this (Straw Dogs opens with a quote from Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, which is the source for the film’s title).

Prince argues that Peckinpah aimed to ‘de-Nazify’ Steiner and his squad and that using the Brecht quote was an insult to Brecht. Peckinpah didn’t understand Brecht according to Prince. This sounds like nonsense to me. As I’ve already noted, there is only one Nazi in the squad. The other soldiers are not necessarily ‘good’ or ‘moral’ men, but their loyalty is to each other, not to the Nazi Party. How could Peckinpah not know Brecht? He was a theatre scholar, he read widely and he directed experimental theatre in the late 1940s (see Weddle 1996: 68) He must have been aware of Brecht having been in Hollywood and his subsequent return to East Germany.

I’m not going to claim that I completely understand the closing section of Cross of Iron and therefore the use of the quote. But it seems clear to me that Peckinpah’s overall intention (and that of the writers and James Coburn) was to present the events as evidence of the futility of war and its consequences which included the barbarity of the battlefield and the corruption of the men who fought it. The opening credits montage intercuts images of children, including a Hitler youth group climbing a mountain, with the rise of Hitler and the gradual deterioration in conditions for the armies (German and Russian) on the Eastern Front. (Two separate music tracks are also intercut – one of children singing, one of martial music.) The closing credits repeat the contrast between children and Nazi officers – but now the images refer not just to partisan children executed by the SS and refugees from the front, but also children suffering in more recent conflicts such as Vietnam, the Middle East and Africa. One reading of the opening and closing of the film is that Hitler corrupted a whole generation of children, causing many to be killed or to become killers. In this context the Brecht quote seems appropriate, the corruption certainly hasn’t ended with child soldiers in Africa and conflicts across the world. For me, Cross of Iron works as a statement against war.