Sam Peckinpah’s Powerful Morality Tale CROSS OF IRON (1977)

The director’s sole war film is new on Blu from Hen’s Tooth Video

Sam Peckinpah’s sole war film is a nightmarish analysis of competing duty and morality. What’s easily the most obvious trait is its point of view — a rare World War II film which follows a German perspective.

While this might seem problematic, especially in our current climate as we’re seeing a dangerous resurgence of nationalism (not to mention white supremacists and literal Nazis), it’s presented responsibly in an appropriate human context — protagonist Sgt Steiner (James Coburn) is a conscientious, courageous, and morally upright leader who does his soldierly duty as a German. His main concern is trying to keep his men alive, which makes him beloved by his platoon and both resented and respected by his superiors (James Mason and David Warner), who put up with his loose cannon personality because he’s such an effective and capable leader. (We also learn that he despises Hitler and the Nazi party, but even without this layer of added moral clarity, it’s clear he’s a man who tries to do the right thing even when it’s not popular).

At times, Steiner must even serve as the moral compass for his wayward men, stopping them from indulging their worst impulses — such as sexually assaulting the women they encounter, or killing a terrified boy soldier.

Steiner finds himself immediately at odds with his new commanding officer Capt. Stransky (Maximilian Schell) when he orders Steiner to kill their new POW, the young boy to whom Steiner had showed mercy.

Stransky is not only cruel, but vain — an officer whose high rank is borne of social standing rather than military accomplishments. Stransky avoids the battlefield, cowering in his bunker, but yearns to acquire a medal of valor, the Iron Cross (perhaps because of his Prussian background, from which the insignia also originates). When Steiner refuses to falsify a report that the Captain led the charge in their last battle, the vengeful Captain withdraws the company from the battlefield in retreat — while leaving Steiner and his men stranded at the vanguard to battle their way back to safety.

Coburn makes a surprisingly effective German, dropping his trademark drawl in favor of a curt accent. James Mason and David Warner are welcome as his superior officers, but it’s actually the rest of the mostly German cast, including his platoon of soldiers, who imbue the film with rugged authenticity.

The film is often infuriating for the horrors it portrays, and has moral clarity despite its potentially problematic framework. While told from a German perspective, it never sympathizes with Nazi rhetoric, but rather soundly refutes them, while upholding the humanity of its characters.

The Package

Cross of Iron is available on Blu-ray today from Hen’s Tooth Video. The feature-packed disc comes in a standard Blu-ray case and includes an insert listing the chapter index and special features.

Video quality is reasonably good — I don’t have any reference point to work from, but it seems to faithfully produce the grimy and intentionally dull aesthetic of the mirthless war film. Close-ups shots demonstrate strong clarity, even if the film generally looks soft.

Special Features and Extras

This disc is packed. Like most Peckinpah Blu-ray releases of the last few years from various distributors, this one features content from Mike Siegel’s El Dorado Productions, a German outfit with a strong affinity for the director. As with their priors, these featurettes are technically unimpressive but packed with information and adoration.

Audio Commentary
by film scholar and critic Stephen Prince, author of several books including Savage Cinema and Classical Film Violence

Passion and Poetry: Sam Peckinpah’s War (47:57)
This major featurette analyzing the film is a chapter of Mike Siegel’s sprawling Passion and Poetry series, other chapters of which are available on other Peckinpah Blu-rays.

Krüger Kisses Kern (8:49)
Vadim Glowna discusses the development of the male kiss scene, which he had a hand in creating, and was sprung on most of the cast as a surprise in order to capture their unscripted reactions

Letters from Vadim & Sam (3:57)
A short correspondence between the actor and director which shows a glimpse of their relationship

Vadim & Sam: Father & Son (6:03)
Vadim discusses his relationship with the cantankerous director

Cutting Room Floor (4:24)
Cast members discuss and share stills and surviving clips of deleted scenes which didn’t make the final cut, including an expended romantic subplot.

Mike’s Home Movies: Steiner & Kiesel Meet Again (7:35)
Footage of James Coburn and David Warner making an appearance together at a Peckinpah Retrospective event in Padua, Italy, in September 2000.

Steiner in Japan (1:57)
This is a great little gem: A pair of short commercials that Peckinpah and Coburn shot together while attending the film’s Japanese premiere.

On Location Interviews:
Sam Peckinpah (5:20)
James Coburn (5:45)
Maximilian Schell (4:47)
James Mason (6:21)
David Warner (3:23)

German Trailer (3:21)
US TV Spot (:32)
US/UK Trailer (3:52)

A/V Out.

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Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.

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