The sense of men under assault in Sam Peckinpah’s 1977 Cross of Iron is relentless. The combat scenes are as visceral as you would expect from Peckinpah on the Eastern Front, but even in the lulls between them, when men talk, sometimes at length, about class or sexuality, the individual and God, they do so with shells exploding nearby and the bunkers shaking around them. It is a full blooded (anti-)war film then, cynical, but not ironic; and that is why it is difficult to watch the final moments without feeling your jaw drop. This is an ending that does not at all fit with the rest of the piece, and does not offer any conclusion to what has been a conventional narrative. Absurdist, disorienting and utterly out of the blue, it is one of the most daring scenes in mainstream cinema; a gamble that succeeds brilliantly.
The film focuses on a German sergeant, Steiner (James Coburn), and the platoon he leads during the retreat from Russia in 1943. His courage and professionalism are evident not only in the thundering action scenes, but in two beautifully choreographed sequences that unfold in silence and show the unit advancing on and securing enemy positions, their movements precisely synchronised under his direction. Steiner has an almost mythical status among the ranks, but he is also is a damaged man, much wounded, who frets over the whereabouts of his children. For a time he adopts a Russian child soldier his platoon has taken prisoner, and when the boy is killed he releases the kind of anguished howl that it seems he may never be far away from. When he is wounded again, he hallucinates in the hospital, seeing the men he leads and loves among the patients.
Resolved to cling to an idea of humanity, Steiner is perforce a class warrior – ‘I hate all officers’ – tolerated by his superiors because of his effectiveness. His new commanding officer, Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell) represents exactly what he despises: aristocracy, cowardice, incompetence, and a thirst for glory. This film makes no bones about its political agenda: the officer class here explicitly represents the ruling elite in civilian life, and it is corrupt to the core.
Steiner and Stransky have one thing in common: their dislike of Nazism; but Stransky distances himself from the regime principally because it discriminates on the grounds of race not caste. Steiner maintains that a man is what he feels himself to be, while Stransky feels the need to prove himself, to justify his privilege. He wants the Iron Cross, and when he tries to lie his way towards getting it, Steiner’s word is the only thing that stands in his way.
In the plot’s final cycle Stransky arranges for Steiner’s platoon to be wiped out, but Steiner survives and returns to confront him in the midst of a major Russian offensive. So far, so formulaic. But instead of killing Stransky, Steiner claims him as ‘the rest of my platoon’ and hands him a machine gun. Stransky accepts this as a challenge, and the two men venture out to face the enemy as the German positions are overrun. But it turns out that Stransky is unfamiliar with his gun: ‘How do I reload?’ he shouts to Steiner, over the roar of battle. A Russian child soldier shoots Stransky’s helmet off. He retrieves it and puts it on back-to-front, still struggling to reload, while Steiner laughs uproariously. Suddenly we are watching a farce. The boy shakes his head in mild vexation, a response to the preposterous duo in front of him. He looks unsettlingly like the boy killed earlier in the film – is Steiner hallucinating again?
The force of this scene is extraordinary. Far from undermining the themes of the film, it reinforces them with this shatteringly simple statement: war is insane. But Peckinpah hasn’t finished. As Steiner’s laughter echoes out over a freeze-frame of his own mirthful face, we are then shown a gallery of archive pictures: Nazis executing children; starving refugees; the civilian victims of wars in Vietnam, Palestine, Africa; and finally this quote, from Bertolt Brecht.
Don’t rejoice in his defeat, you men / For though the world stood up and stopped the bastard, / The bitch that bore him is in heat again.
War is insane then, but fighting remains necessary.