It is interesting that Sam Peckinpah, once one of the great white hopes of American cinema, is hardly mentioned any longer. That’s probably because Peckinpah’s violent, sexualized, pessimistic world view is almost the antithesis of the Disneyesque play pen mainstream cinema has become. Even his mastery of action would be problematic today, since he never provides the sleek, cold, jolts for jocks of contemporary Hollywood. Violence always has consequences in Peckinpah’s films.
Cross of Iron, one of Peckinpah’s later films, centers on a platoon of German soldiers on the Eastern Front. Despite the slightly unusual idea of showing that the Germans’ conditions were as grimy as anyone’s, the film pretty much sticks to generic convention. The platoon includes a cross-section of soldierly types, convincing enough as you watch, but offering little new or insightful. (In fact, we probably know less about them than usual.) That goes for the leader of the platoon, Steiner (James Coburn) as much as anyone. A battle hardened veteran with mythic stature among those who know him, Steiner’s major distinction is his unconcealed contempt for his officers.
Steiner’s chief antagonist is not the Soviets, but a new company commander, Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell). Stransky’s quest for the prestigious Iron Cross decoration gives the film its title. The scion of a Prussian aristocratic family, Stransky embodies everything Steiner hates. When the latter refuses to testify to Stransky deserving the medal, the stage is set for the violent intrigue that follows.
Which, for all the customary ’70s era frankness, remains predictable. Instead of any political or character insight, we’re treated to a host of unedifying details of close combat. One character reeks of body odor because he deliberately doesn’t wash; another has a problem with flatulence. A tank rolls over the remains of a corpse that sinks even further into the mud. A soldier is castrated by a Russian woman during fellatio, presumably his punishment for being a Nazi. Bodies are torn limb from limb during the battles in Peckinpah’s signature slow motion. Needless to say, there’s more.
Trite formula, but all so maddeningly beautiful. War may be hell, but Peckinpah renders the maiming, destruction and horror as ecstatic spectacle. It’s certainly no coincidence, for example, that my most vivid memory of the film before seeing it again was the shot above, as Steiner tosses a spent gun cartridge in slow-motion. It has no story significance at all, but it ably brings an early fight sequence to an appropriate end, as a kind of formal, nearly musical punctuation.
I haven’t seen all of Peckinpah’s work, but surely it expresses one of the greatest ironies in film history. A notorious master of cinematic machismo is best remembered today for his style. The content may be brutal, the attitudes expressed aggressive hot air, but his eye for the beauty of destruction is suspiciously refined for such a tendentiously masculine blowhard. If Peckinpah wanted to be a Steiner, it may be because he feared he was a Stransky.