Ever since the truly sublime Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketch “Salad Days”, Sam Peckinpah has been something of a punchline for critics who reduce him to the rampant Novocaine of violence opiating the masses. His only proper war film, Cross of Iron, is not a full-throated rejoinder to that criticism, but it certainly problematizes the animating cinematic thrill of, say, The Wild Bunch. It’s not an abandonment, though, so much as a rough and rowdy revision, punchy in the typical Peckinpah milieu but more decrepit and alienated from violence.
The introduction is a little over-baked, but it works as a sort of amuse-bouche for Peckinpah’s exceedingly dry comic sensibility, with a documentary video-reel of Nazi imagery marinated in an overtly condescending, cheeky military march. Great stuff, and it reveals a truly mordant sense of humor underneath Peckinpah’s usually stone-faced cinematic exteriors. Peckinpah also inverts the famous opening credits for The Wild Bunch, where color soldiers unsympathetically flash into still-photo black-and-white as if to trap them in time and enervate them of life-blood. Here, the black and white footage flashes into static blood-red, as if the distanced and denatured imagery of the past is being provocatively reinstated as a bloody present.
When the film begins, Peckinpah’s infamous montage is already fully-formed and flexing its muscle, but his murderous brio is complicated this time out. Cross of Iron is not about ceremonious onslaught but the unceremonious absurdity of governmental bureaucracy. It happens to be Nazi military bureaucracy, but Cross of Iron’s most devilish work is to tease out the ways that the film could largely be transplanted wholesale to any random corporation in middle-America with few alterations.
This two-hander is about a German leader Stransky (Maximilian Schnell) who is obsessed with the titular German military award despite being essentially unwilling to participate in the war. His astoundingly skilled sergeant (James Coburn) loathes war in all its facets but participates out of a kind of closeted contempt for everyone around him. The sergeant, Steiner, is the only thing between his commander and his medal – Steiner knows full well that the commander hid when he was supposed to fight – but his calculated hatred for the German machine and war all around manifests in the perverse satisfaction he feels in not immediately renouncing Stransky. When Stransky beats a hasty retreat and leaves Steiner’s men behind, Steiner must wade through foreign territory to catch up to Stransky, but this is Peckinpah, so don’t expect a conventional revenge or “man on a mission” film.
It’s a Nazi story, but it isn’t just about the Holocaust; this could be a mockery of meritocracy in any nation or any business, a violent and sarcastic take-down of the myth that competency breeds adulation. It’s also not a tale of a ricocheting loose-cannon unscrewing the cogs around him; Steiner is too disaffected to gin up the energy or moral certitude required to wage an internal war in any outward sense. Which makes Cross of Iron a comparatively collapsed, essentially distilled form of emptiness and lethargy, a mood that many of Peckinpah’s films – Pat Garrett, Alfredo Garcia – secretly nurture even to their reputational detriment.
Cross of Iron also jeopardizes The Wild Bunch’s men-in-crisis companionship, a classical filmic sensibility of masculine brooding that tends to be less revolutionary than it usually aspires to. In its place, Cross teases out homoerotic auras; amidst all the violence the only thing that truly stops the men cold is an impromptu male-on-male kiss. The frequent posturing and piercing gazes that tend to occupy these films do not emerge unscathed either, particularly in the oddly sensual undercarriage of appearance-focus that overturns male chauvinist comments legitimizing men who calculate cutting figures and powerful auras while bemoaning women who supposedly spend too much time on their appearances. The theoretically masculine battle of wills and toxic push-pull we expect between the two central characters is instead a more dishearteningly and less overtly cathartic affair without the suspenseful stand-offs and coiled iron-wills we expect our way.
Cross of Iron continues to surprise. It isn’t actually interested in Nazism at all. Instead, it is beset with issues of class conflict; the wheedling commander considers a Prussian aristocrat participating in the war as a matter of proof of his lineage and insists that he wants nothing to do with Hitler’s supposed abolition of class. Offering few moments of precious clarity, this work has Peckinpah exorcizing personal demons and wrestling with his self, his cinematic identity, ultimately producing the summit of his unique brand of “nihilist poetry”, to cop from Pauline Kael’s lobbed grenades of adoration. This is the kind of film Peckinpah’s idol John Huston would have directed if he was still a young man in the ‘70s.
Although violence is aplenty here, gone is the youthful steamroll of rushed energy present in some of Peckinpah’s earlier films. (A fire that was haphazardly relit with his next film, a money-making endeavor adapted from a novelty country song named, like the song, Convoy, a delirious slab of ‘70s trucker-culture at its most impenetrable and hermetically-sealed). But for Cross, there are only a handful of overtly jittery, fractious filigrees-rattling-in-the-lightbulb episodes, like a murderous montage that disfigures space and time. That montage is revealed as a dream though, the curtain of crazed style pulled back on us as a false refuge from a much more dispiriting sense of a military world where cinematic mayhem is much less clarified, much less exciting, much more capable of being collapsed and emptied-out. The violent episodes have no forward momentum or rise, ebb, crescendo, or flow; rather than symphonies of destruction, they’re pitifully and pathetically hollow exercises in rote bloodletting.
But that’s Peckinpah’s brilliance. His hell-raising attitude belied an essential fragility, a pensive sense of emptiness and an ear for silence, a fatiguing and auto-critical attitude of arbitrariness that has no rise, nor any fall. Cross of Iron is not a total revolution – an attitude of brash machismo eventually interferes with the palpable futility of it all – but it offers something wholly convincing and perhaps necessary in the cinematic canon: a depiction of war, and society writ large, as perpetual flat-line.
That’s important stuff; we as a society like clever, after-effect auto-critique, the kind of war film a la Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds that stokes up a rip-roaring frenzy in the moment and then retroactively inspires discussion about its secretly anti-military attitude or its clandestine criticism of its audience and their fetish for violence. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t change the fact that such films rely on a dubious form of back-handed double-dealing: they feed off of our love via being enthralling and exciting, wrapping us up in them, and then only after we’ve enjoyed the film do they pull the rug out from under us with revelations of their intellect. They not only treat us to spectacle but stroke our egos by making us feel smart after the fact without actually sabotaging our in-the-theater enjoyment.
That’s the kind of insufferably pragmatist logic that advocates for compromise and equivocation in the name of getting attention in the first place, implying that if a movie is “boring” it won’t receive an audience. Peckinpah’s film is radically boring, tired, and destroyed by those standards, totally disinterested in courting our excitement or attention, and it is for this reason – its in-the-moment, active-tense sense of audience alienation – that it is fascinating and essential cinema. The film isn’t interested in clever double-takes or pretentious “aha” moments of secret revelation about how against-us the movie was all along. It’s just nasty, depressed, disheartening stuff, Peckinpah distilled.