Sam Peckinpah’s CROSS OF IRON (1977)

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Good kill.”

With these words, Sam Peckinpah opens up thoughts and discourse in his 1977 war film, CROSS OF IRON. These are the first words spoken by the main character, played by James Coburn, and they don’t happen until around the 7 minute and 40 second mark. Prior to this we are given one of the greatest opening credit sequences, and then a stealth mission where we follow the main characters as they quietly sneak up on an enemy bunker team and eliminate them.

This line is much like the iconic one in Peckinpah’s 1969 western classic, THE WILD BUNCH, where the main character simply says, “Let’s go.” There is a whole lot more weight and meaning and unspoken choices when William Holden says this line, as anyone who has seen THE WILD BUNCH knows. He repeats that line several times in the film, but when he says it in that solemn quiet moment before the long walk to the notorious finale of the movie, it burns into your memory. It has been ranked as one the greatest movie quotes of all time, along with the even more famous, “If they move….kill ’em.”

The skill of the credit sequence

While some directors view the opening credit sequence as a necessary evil where they list all involved as quickly as they can, Peckinpah considers it an art form. It often becomes a mini-movie by itself, and perfectly sets the stage and back story for the film to come. I recommend THE WILD BUNCH, PAT GARRET AND BILLY THE KID, THE GETAWAY, CROSS OF IRON, and JUNIOR BONNER for examples of his stellar opening sequences. Lesser directors would just take the lazy road by adding a narration that explains the set up and history, or even a title card to catch the viewer up. Peckinpah tells us more about the characters, backgrounds, motivations, and mood in those first few minutes than some directors tell us in their entire film. And he does it in an entertaining way that drops us right into the story.

The genius opening credit sequence in CROSS OF IRON is as good or better than the one in Peckinpah’s 1972 film, THE GETAWAY. That one is an 8.5-minute-long masterclass in editing and storytelling with very little dialogue.  In CROSS OF IRON, black and white newsreel footage of young German children is cross-cut with real archival World War 2 footage. He shows us artillery shellings, Nazi flags, marching soldiers, and corpses on the ground. A young choir sings a children’s song juxtaposed with footage of Hitler Youth Groups. The sing-song children’s playground tune alternates with ominous orchestral film music. At the end of each verse in the child’s song the image freezes and the screen turns red, while the music switches to a more typical movie score. Some horn fanfare finds its way into the soundtrack. We are shown images of tanks, executions, rifles firing, grenades exploding, and Adolf Hitler himself appearing rather childish.

The images of children in this opening, and during the film itself, are key. It is no accident that Peckinpah collated so much newsreel footage with children’s faces listening to speeches and shaking Hitler’s hand. He wants to show us that impressionable young children are always watching and being influenced by the violence that us adults participate in and tolerate. Violence is normalized and children grow up to take part in their own violence in some way. A child character plays an important role in the film itself. And various characters behave in a very childish manner. Some characters are immature and petty, petulant and selfish. Others are just uneducated and crass. Others exist solely for the brotherhood of it all. Some play games and sing songs of childhood. The whole idea of war as teenage draftees (kids) forced to go out and run around in fields with guns, is much like how little kids would play cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians. We evolve from elementary school playground games with imaginary guns to actual battlefields with weapons that maim and kill. Peckinpah also dealt with the impact of kids watching violence in The Wild Bunch. After the initial massacre in that film, the kids run around pointing their fingers at each other making ‘bang-bang’ noises, emulating the actual shootout they just witnessed. They also put some scorpions in a container with thousands of ants and watch the battle to the death.

This opening newsreel sequence of CROSS OF IRON goes on for almost 4 minutes before Sam starts inserting footage of his actors in their German uniforms. It’s easy to miss just when the footage changes from actual war footage from the later 30’s and early 40’s to the footage he shot for this movie in 1976. He did a great job of matching the darkness and grain. James Coburn leads his team through the forest on a stealth mission. We travel with them through smoke-filled trees as if in a dream. This entire scene is done without music. The only music is birds, the Russian radio chatter, and more importantly the distant sound of the enemy mortar firing. As they move closer to the enemy camp this drum-like mortar sound gets louder and louder in the mix, just like it would to the German soldiers. I remember being very impressed with this sound design the first time I saw this movie, and I still am each time I watch it. The team silently approaches three sentries, keeps their horses quiet, and takes them out in such a way that they do not make any noise as they die to alert the mortar team. Coburn’s team uses a knife, a garrote, and their bare hands to kill the guards. They then quietly approach the bunker, which has mortars and a heavy machine gun on a tripod. They surprise the Russian bunker with grenades and machine guns of their own. The first usage of Peckinpah’s trademark slow motion camerawork happens in this scene. He was a master at showing the poetry of violence, finding strange beauty in the dance of death. Bodies twisting as they react to gunfire in the choreographed ballet of bullets.

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Once the Russian mortar team is eliminated, Coburn’s character Steiner surveys the bodies and says, “Good kill.” This could mean many different things and be interpreted several different ways. It could mean that it was a good kill because all enemies were killed without any suffering. It could mean that no enemy got away, or was able to notify others on the radio. It could mean it was a justified killing based on previous actions of the enemy. It could mean it was a clean or righteous kill as in an act of revenge. It could mean that their aim was solid and the bullet holes were all at the center-of-mass chest area. It could even mean that it was just simply fun for them.

I defy anyone to watch the first 8 minutes of this film and not be stricken by how well done it is. I’ll even go further and say that you won’t be able to stop watching the film after watching the opening credits/stealth mission sequence. Peckinpah always had a skill for sucking viewers into the movie from the openings alone.

Synopsis

This is an unusual film in that it told from the point of view of German soldiers. We follow their story as they battle against the Russian army near the end of the war in 1943. Except for Wolfgang Petersen’s amazing 1981 German film DAS BOOT, I can’t think of many other movies told from the German’s point of view. I don’t want to spend too much time on plot synopsis, mainly because I just want you to watch the film and be swept away by it. But briefly, James Coburn is a Sergeant in the German army leading a small squad in the retreat from the Russian Front. Maximilian Schell plays Stransky, an arrogant Captain transferred to be his new commander. Stransky is mainly concerned with earning himself the Iron Cross medal, even though he isn’t really a soldier. He lacks the experience, courage, and bravery to realistically accomplish this trite and selfish goal. James Mason and David Warner play other officers in the German army.

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Telling the story from the viewpoint of weary German soldiers seems unusually bold, but after a few minutes the audience buys into it. Sam takes any allegiances or politics out of it and it just becomes a story about soldiers in war. There’s no nationalism or clichés. The issues, problems, intense decisions, bureaucracy, and death that they face are universal to soldiers of any army. You end up sympathizing with them because they are soldiers in hellish conditions, not because they are ‘the enemy.’  There is only one point in the film, near the end, where the characters do acknowledge their particular place in 20th century history. Steiner says to his squad, “Germany. Do you think they will ever forgive us for what we’ve done? Or forget us?”

Children going to war

Besides the repeated footage of children in the masterful opening credit sequence, CROSS OF IRON is full of children and references to children. The recurring motif of children being sent to fight older men’s wars is present in both CROSS OF IRON and DAS BOOT.
This exchange from DAS BOOT comes to mind:

Captain: Take pictures of the crew returning, not putting out to sea.
Lt. Werner: Why?
Captain: They’ll have grown beards by then. It would shame the Tommies to see mere boys give them hell. Baby faces. Ones that should still suck mama’s breast.
I feel ancient around these kids, like I’m on some Children’s Crusade.

A line in CROSS OF IRON directly connects with this scene when a grizzled warrior presents the new clean-shaven teenage recruit and says, “They’re sending us babies now.”

More scenes dealing with children in war happen early in the film. We are shown a dead teenage soldier with his arm presumably blown off from the grenades that they just lobbed into the bunker. Coburn’s character Steiner says, “It’s nothing we haven’t seen before.” A moment later a member of his team captures an even younger Russian boy. The boy reached into his pocket and a soldier raises his gun. Steiner says, “Put it down…” and shows us a line that he won’t cross, even though others have. The boy was just reaching for his harmonica, which he beings to play. Perhaps trying to save his own life by communicating through music. They don’t get approval from their superiors, there is no discussion, Steiner just says, “And bring him with us.”

When Stransky finds out about the Russian prisoner he orders Steiner to shoot him due to their policy of not taking prisoners. The boy, who looks about 12, only speaks Russian so he does not understand the order Stransky is giving. The team member in charge of the boy says that he will go take care of it and walks off with him, deceiving Stransky and saving the boy’s life. He then walks him down into their underground bunk house and quarters and the boy is essentially adopted into their team. The Russian boy becomes a helper to the German squad. A wartime foster kid.

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The next day the team is drinking coffee preparing for the day’s mission and Corporal Schnurrbart randomly asks Steiner about his kids. This give us some of the only back story and motivation for his taking on the young Russian boy.

Schnurrbart: “Do you ever think about your children?”
Steiner: “Always.”
Schnurrbart: “Where are they?”
Steiner: “I don’t know.”

Steiner then sees the Russian boy walk by him wearing a German Stahlhelm (helmet) and jacket. He stops him and removes both, revealing the Russian uniform the boy was originally wearing. He says, “Take off one uniform, there’s always another one underneath.” Steiner walks the boy out through the mist-shrouded barbwire fences to release him. Perhaps based on guilt, his own missing kids, or an inability to keep the boy safe, he decides to free him and tells him to go home. The boy gives Steiner his harmonica and runs off into the forest.

Much later, near the end of the film, the squad is trying to return from behind enemy lines and a teenage solider is found hopping oddly around the grass. He explains that it’s a children’s game where you try not to step on the spots where the sunlight beams touch the ground. It is supposed to bring good luck, and if he only steps on the shadows they might all get through all right. Silly superstitions like avoiding stepping on sidewalk cracks so you don’t break your Mother’s back. The games of our youth being relied upon to ward off death.

Connections

As I recently rewatched Cross of Iron I noticed numerous specific connections to other war films.

A) DAS BOOT (1981)

The other major film that is told from the German soldier’s point of view is DAS BOOT, with which CROSS OF IRON shares many similarities. The cramped underground bunkers in Peckinpah’s film remind me of the claustrophobic interior of the German submarine in DAS BOOT. The forced happiness with meals and drinking to kill time between attacks. The constant mortar shell explosions that disrupt and terrify the soldiers in the underground bunkers is very similar to the depth charges that detonate in the water around the submarine. The brotherhood and love among the soldiers. The notable youth and inexperience of these soldiers that we expect to make intense life-or-death decisions on a dime in wartime. Even just everyone looking haggard and tired, covered in dust and sweat and wearing beards.

B) APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)

There are several scenes showing Captain Stransky flinching at mortar explosions while the other seasoned soldiers do not. This is a great visual way to quickly show us that this man doesn’t have the experience and isn’t a soldier. He is a desk sitter, an aristocrat, an officer who likely got promoted due to his connections rather than any battlefield victories. This reminds me of the classic scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam 1979 war epic APOCALYPSE NOW. Colonel Kilgore (played by Robert Duvall) stands on the beach shirtless among the explosions around him. He doesn’t flinch at all while everyone around him drops to the ground to take cover. This is the same scene where he makes his most famous line about loving the smell of napalm in the morning. It’s the reverse of the Cross of Iron scene. It shows us that Kilgore is a very seasoned soldier, accustomed to constant nearby explosions, immune to any fear of them, and perhaps overconfident and a bit crazy. He thrives in the chaos and imminent death, which makes him perfect out in the field.

My friends might tease me for comparing every movie I ever watch to Apocalypse Now, since that’s my favorite war film ever made, and honestly my favorite film (tied with Blade Runner). But in this instance the comparisons are completely valid. I don’t think Coppola would have seen Cross of Iron even though it came out two years prior to Apocalypse Now. Coppola was deep in the Philippines jungle for almost 2 years filming Apocalypse Now under unbelievably challenging conditions. Please watch his wife Eleanor Coppola’s amazing 1991 documentary called HEARTS OF DARKNESS for the account of that troubled production. I think that the shared flinching/not flinching scenes just show that both directors hit upon a universal symbol of inexperience/experience with war.

Another connection to Apocalypse Now is some dialogue discussing war itself. In Apocalypse Now, Colonel Kilgore says, “Someday this war’s gonna end….”
He doesn’t explain himself, but I feel that there are so many unspoken sentiments when he says that line. I think his character actually enjoys the freedom and chaos of war, so he is almost mourning that this war will eventually end. When else in a man’s life can he be master of his own violent destiny, killing other men with the blessing of your government and no real repercussions? The thought of returning stateside to some office job as a cog in the corporate machine would be hell to soldiers like these. Since the ultra masculine John Milius wrote the script, I am certain that is what he was going for with this. Kilgore is wistful and sad about the prospect of this coming to an end. Ironically, the Vietnam War is a war that went on and on and on, without a distinct ending or conclusion.

In Cross of Iron, Steiner has this small speech to his squad which exemplifies the ideas above:

“To tell you the truth I’m beginning to enjoy it. What do you want? Sitting in some mud hole somewhere waiting for the top of your head to be blown off? At least here we’re free.”

We also have this bit of dialogue between Nurse Eva and Coburn’s Steiner character:

Steiner: “I’m going back.”
Eva: “I thought you were going back home.”
Steiner: “I have no home.”
Eva: “Do you love the war so much?
Is that…..is that what’s wrong with you, Steiner?
Or are you afraid of what you’ll be without it?”

What do hardened killers do once they return back to the normal world? Are you able to change back into who you were before you killed men with machine guns, bayonets, knives, or your bare hands? I don’t think so. I think you put on a mask and try to keep the killer within you at bay. Reintegration back into the world after being a soldier has been the subject of so many great films from THE DEER HUNTER to TAXI DRIVER. ROLLING THUNDER, FIRST BLOOD, COMING HOME, AMERICAN SNIPER, and BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY all tackle this topic. THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES might have been the first film to deal with this topic back in 1946. War changes you into somebody else and you are never the same again.

One of the best lines from Cross of Iron is the moment between the James Mason and David Warner characters:

Colonel Brandt: What will we do when we have lost the war?
Captain Keisel: Prepare for the next one.

The perfectly sums up the themes of the perpetuity of war, the military-industrial complex, and the inherent war-like nature of mankind.

There is another shared scene between Cross of Iron and Apocalypse Now. In both films the main character is part of a dinner scene that is alien to them. Our protagonist is put into a meeting or social dinner with people who are far removed from the grimy reality of soldiering. In Apocalypse Now the men who assign the mission to Captain Willard are eating shrimp and roast beef and other delicacies that he is unaccustomed to, as evidenced by the expressions on his face. Soldiers typically eat MRE rations and whatever they can scrape together. The bureaucrats eat seafood prepared for them by servants. In Cross of Iron Steiner is injured in battle and convalesces in a military hospital. There is a dinner with many visiting officials in the German military looking for photo ops with the healing soldiers. The officers and aristocrats eat similar delicacies that the hoi polloi and soldiers would never be offered. Cooked whole pigs, chickens, and rabbits. They remove these items into the ‘private dining room’ and leave the vegetables to the regular guests. The scene is edited in a way that makes the people seem animalistic as they feast, tearing apart the vegetables and lettuce and splashing wine into their mouths. Both scenes use extreme closeups of the food and sound effects of forks and lips smacking to enhance the strangeness of it all.

And to return again to the recurring motif of children in these war movies, Apocalypse Now opens with Jim Morrison hauntingly singing these perfectly fitting lyrics from The Doors classic song, “The End.”

Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain
And all of the children are insane

C) SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998)

Steven Spielberg is a fan of all films, so I am certain that he watched Cross of Iron. He was definitely influenced by it, and put numerous connections and similarities in his 1998 war masterpiece, Saving Private Ryan.

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The way Spielberg uses tanks at the final battle definitely reminds you of Cross of Iron. He makes the tanks animal-like with the huge roaring of their engines and squeaking of the tank treads. The rumbling of the tank movement builds tension just like Peckinpah’s film did. There are certain shots that I believe Spielberg directly replicated as an homage to Cross of Iron. Several scenes in Cross of Iron have a tank climbing up a ridge and coming over the top of our protagonists in the trenches. The tank then crosses the trench. There are scenes exactly like this with Matt Damon and Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan that are very intense, and I think a tribute to Peckinpah’s tank battle. Another famous scene in SPR is where they improvise and make ‘sticky-bombs,’ This is where they take a sock and put composition B (explosives) into it, then slather it with axle grease. They add a fuse and throw these onto the tank wheels to blow off the tank treads. In Cross of Iron James Coburn’s character grabs a bunch of land mines and places them directly on the tank treads of an enemy tank that is stalled over a trench. Once it begins to move again it detonates the mines, destroying the entire tank. The trench warfare in both films is chaotic and brutal and frenetic, just as I imagine it would actually be.

There is also a scene in Cross of Iron where a soldier collects a sniper rifle off of a dead enemy and is looking through the sights trying it out. He makes a quiet firing noise with his mouth and is then surprised by an actual explosion nearby. This is reminiscent of the scene in SPR where Tom Hanks is firing his pistol at an approaching tank and is surprised by a much louder artillery explosion.

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The idea of killing a prisoner of war is deftly debated in SPR, and it is dealt with in Cross of Iron as well. Tom Hanks and his team capture a German soldier and, after much debate, let him go. James Coburn and his team capture a Russian youth and, after adopting him into their group, let him go. In both cases their decision comes back to haunt them. The entire crux of SPR is why a group of men should risk all of their lives for the rescue of one other man? It’s one thing if it’s brotherhood, and you are going through high risk to rescue one of your own. But in SPR it is for a total stranger. His only reason for getting out is that his 3 other brothers have already died in the war and the government wants to get him out before he is also killed. But does that make his life more important than the soldiers currently trying to save him? In COI there are several instances of putting the group at risk for the benefit of a higher ranking official. Why are the officer’s lives deemed more valuable than the soldier’s lives? The aristocrats and government bureaucrats that never see the battlefield are shielded from any danger while they order men to their deaths.

I also would say that some of the nice little artistic touches of visual poetry that Spielberg added in to SPR are much like the ones Peckinpah put in his film. There is a shot of the squad walking across a field at night with artillery shell explosions briefly lighting everything up. We see the silhouettes of the soldiers walking through a surreal environment strangely lit by markers of war. Spielberg adds dead fish on the beach after the stunning D-Day invasion of Normandy battle, their silver bodies reflecting the light like daggers. The squad finds a phonograph in the rubble and listen to a song by Edith Piaf as one of them deciphers her French lyrics. A beautiful moment of soldiers appreciating music and culture before the horrors of war return.  In another classic Spielberg touch, he focuses on green leaves as they start to get hit by raindrops. The sounds of the raindrops are subtly mixed with gunfire and explosions as we cut to the next battle scene. This is a genius linking of two scenes. Nature and beauty juxtaposed with violence and death.
This visual poetry is the subject of the next section.

Visual poetry on film

Some of the most striking scenes in this film don’t actually do anything to propel the story along. But they end up being the moments that stay in your brain long after the credits roll. These scenes are all dialogue-free, showing the power of visual poetry. I am certain that Peckinpah, and other great directors, fought for their little touches of poetic beauty when studio executives wanted them cut out. Here are my favorite little moments from Cross of Iron that elevate it far above any other war film.

A German soldier cooking the group meal in their underground bunker pops open a bottle of wine. Just as the cork pops and we expect to hear that familiar sound, Peckinpah cuts away to a scene of mortar shells exploding. He matches the sound of a mortar explosion where the cork pop should have been.

A dead soldier is face down in a pond and blood from his mouth slowly flows into the muddy water.

Three soldiers are crawling through the tall grass to stay out of sight. The camera is up above them looking down, so we can see the trails that their bodies leave behind.

During a battle a soldier is flung into the air by a mortar shell. While in midair his body is punctured by shrapnel from the explosion. We see blood splashes at the entrance point and the exit point before he lands on a barbwire fence. Peckinpah was the master of using blood squibs for realistic bullet wounds in his westerns. Here he upgrades it for shrapnel trauma and gore.

A dead soldier’s body laying on a muddy road is run over by a jeep. His body has been there a long time, and there is so much chaos that nobody has had time to remove him from the path. This scene was replicated exactly in the 2014 war film FURY. It had better be an intentional homage, otherwise the Peckinpah estate should sue.

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A high level official goes to shake the hand of a soldier at a military hospital dinner. The officer reaches for the wounded soldier’s hand and sees that his hand has been amputated. He moves to shake the soldier’s left hand and that hand too has been amputated. The soldier, sitting in a wheelchair, defiantly raises his foot to the officer for him to shake.

We see a white screen with no context and no sound. After a few seconds we recognize it as fog. As the fog and smoke clears, we see a stationary tank sitting like an animal waiting for a clear path of vision. This is such a dramatic reveal, and a great way to begin the thrilling tank battle. Quick cuts show about a dozen tanks waiting to attack.

This tank assault late in the film is one of the most thrilling sequences in the movie. A tank blasts a hole in the concrete wall of the factory where our protagonists are hiding. The camera holds on the blank wall and the hole. Slowly the turret of the tank pokes through the hole as the tank advances. Much like a submarine periscope surveying the inside. Then the tank pushes through and knocks the whole wall down in glorious slow motion.

Conclusion

Peckinpah liked working with the same actors from film to film. He essentially had a company of actors that appeared in many of his films including Steve McQueen, Jason Robards, Warren Oates, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, Kris Kristofferson, Slim Pickens, and others. He wisely chose James Coburn to star in three of his films: Major Dundee, Pat Garett and Billy the Kid, and Cross of Iron. I think that his performance as Steiner in Cross of Iron is his greatest of the three, even more haunting that his Pat Garett role. He perfectly embodies the weary soldier who doesn’t believe in the war or the cause any longer. But he forges on because it’s all he knows, he needs it, and he is good at it. Much like the characters in The Wild Bunch, they are men out of time, confronting their own impending obsolescence in a changing world.

I think this weary speech that James Coburn gives is one of the greatest acting moments of his career.

Steiner:
Don’t think that just because you and Colonel Brandt are more enlightened than most officers that I hate you any less.
I hate all officers. All the Stranskys, all the Treibigs, all the Iron Cross scavengers in the whole German army.
Do you know how much I hate this uniform, and everything it stands for? God!

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Peckinpah is most famous for his work in westerns. Cross of Iron is his only war film, and it is also his last great film. He sadly spiraled out of control due to alcohol and drugs, getting himself kicked off as many projects as he landed, and getting blacklisted for several years. He continually fought with executives and producers, and pissed off the wrong people. His talent cannot be denied, and when he was functional and at the top of his game he couldn’t be matched. I’m sad that his self-destructive streak robbed us of numerous potential films after his death in 1984. This is one of the greatest war films ever made, and is one of the greatest anti-war films ever made as well. Cross of Iron is Peckinpah’s final masterpiece and deserves to be seen and recognized as such.

“And I will show you where the Iron Crosses grow.”

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