Film Review: Cross of Iron 4K

Behind the flags… the bodies lay

It’s an extraordinary experience re-watching Sam Peckinpah’s Cross Of Iron (1977) in 2023, multiple decades after last seeing it on a lazy Saturday or Sunday afternoon tv broadcast. At that time of innocence, with just a relatively few years clocked up in life experience, it could be ‘enjoyed’ as an entertaining war movie, easily slotting into the category of all time greats. But to watch it again, with the mind set and experiences of an adult, is an entirely different understanding, response and lingering war wound reactions.

And that’s just the movie itself, then there’s the incredible bounty of extras that come with the StudioCanal Steelbook/Blu-ray versions, exposing the behind the scenes, of what could only be seen as an intense mirror of the conflict within the actual script, with just as many metaphorical/behavioural explosions in production, as real ones on set. It’s a miracle this movie survived to see the light of day for so many reasons, but first the movie.

It’s 1943 and the last remnants of the German army are stationed on the Russian front, living in constant fear of an imminent attack from a vast and full resupplied Russian military force. The Germans meanwhile are fuelled on belief only, stocks are depleted, morale and especially sanity are low, if present at all. Death is coming, and clear reason has died long ago.

We are embedded into the trenches with a platoon of German soldiers commanded by Sergeant Rolf Steiner (James Coburn), a seasoned soldier, who has earned his position, and the respect of his troops by a proven track record in successful missions, and looking out for his men. But it has taken a toil on the entire platoon, no one is who they were when they joined, some hide that trauma better than others, some don’t hide it at all.

Steiner, as some others, wears the Iron Cross, that supreme German symbol of military valour on their uniforms, but they wear it with the indifference that people who have experienced true war do, it means nothing, it is worth nothing, except to those who don’t have it. Goose step forward Captain Hauptmann Starnsky (Maximilian Schell), a Prussian aristocrat who was gifted his position by pure entitlement alone. He had a very safe command in France, but with zero chance of acquiring a Cross to basically save face and get the ‘Likes’ from his family and friends, he moves to the front. A man possessed by ingrained self belief of status, he will do anything, and sacrifice anyone for this false totem. The expanse and destruction of a global war, is miniscule, and meaningless in comparison of the distorted greed of the protected establishment, where trinkets and commendations (however shallow, undeserved) can be displayed. The more willingness to wave flags, the more hollow the meaning.

The grandeur of conflict is distilled down to that between an ordinary, yet honourable, principled man, Steiner, and the eternal privileged establishment, and truly insidious Starnsky. The timeless clash of oppressed, and oppressor.

It’s a masterful stroke of Peckinpah to create this truly universal story of the abuse of power (people don’t go to war, ‘leaders’ do), and base it in a German camp. Despite all the justifiable historical hate for the Nazi German army, we very quickly see the basic human similarities they share with us, and how they were manipulated by political groups with agendas, and objectives of complete control, the exact same way we are being steered today. Beyond our expectations we start to root for these individuals to just survive, and build peace, not destruction.

War isn’t flag waving, it’s chaos, murder, death, blood, humiliation, rape, annihilation, insanity, inhumanity, and its all shown, Peckinpah pulls no punches in exposing the lies of pomp, and the truth of petty decisions, by insignificant base people, that lead to a living hell for all. It’s easy to be so frivolous, indifferent to the lives of others, when you’ve been conditioned and protected by wealth, to belief you are inherently of greater value.

It was also shrewd to distil the war down to individuals, not only because of lack of budget (there’s some incredible stories in the extras), but because the story becomes like a very tight, claustrophobic play, where the outstanding performances of everyone involved, those mentioned, plus Colonel Brandt (James Mason), Captain Kiesel (David Warner) and effectively everyone involved with a stellar German cast including Private Kern (Vadim Glowna), Unteroffizier Krüger (Klaus Löwitsch) and Leutnant Triebig (Roger Fritz).

Despite the scope of a global war, it’s at it’s most potent when the scenes are between characters, performance and dialogue, with abilities such as these actors, and the somewhat intense direction of Peckinpah, the anguish of the story, the script, and the experience of making the movie are in every wrinkle on every face, in every frame, it is phenomenal. There are countless stand out scenes, lines of dialogue that pack a punch, visual moments of awe or surrealness, all showing the broad spectrum of the realities and madness of warfare.

It also looks superb, having been expertly restored from original film to 4K, though the 2.0 mono sound aged the work, feeling somewhat flat when so used to a surround sound experience. Having said that, there are so many explosions in the film, if it was 5.1, I very well might have tinnitus now.

As I mentioned at the start, the movie is rich in content in itself, but with the amount of extra information contained in the extras disc, the full story absolutely needs to be experienced with this knowledge, as you will reassess once again after watching it all.

Cross Of Iron 4K is available via StudioCanal on UHD Steelbook, Blu-ray, DVD and digital now.

Steve Clarke

Born in Celtic lands, nurtured in art college, trained by the BBC, inspired by Hunter S. Thompson and released onto the battlefront of all things interesting/inspiring/good vibes... people, movies, music, clubbing, revolution, gigs, festivals, books, art, theatre, painting and trying to find letters on keyboards in the name of flushthefashion. Making sure it's not quite on the western front... and beyond.