Cross of Iron is available on StudioCanal 4K Ultra HD Steelbook, Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital from July 31.
StudioCanal’s 4K restoration of Sam Peckinpah’s World War II classic Cross of Iron is truly something to behold. Crisp UHD visuals, outstanding sound and a range of new bonus features, including interviews, behind-the-scenes and on-location footage, make this release under the StudioCanal Vintage Classics banner a must for all cinephiles.
Sam Peckinpah’s unflinching exploration of war, senseless violence, and political manipulation remains as powerful today as it was on its release in 1977. Orson Welles described Cross of Iron as “one of the greatest anti-war films ever made”, and there is no doubt that Peckinpah’s film sits at the same table as Paths of Glory (1957), Come and See (1985) and All Quiet on the Western Front (2022) to name but a few. But what makes Cross of Iron unique in the pantheon of anti-war dramas is its focus on the psychological effects on soldiers fighting a dying war they neither fully understood nor entirely supported. Peckinpah’s movie isn’t interested in the concept of heroes and villains; instead, he focuses his lens on the physical and psychological toll of war on people used as mere political pawns.
The year is 1943, and the German Army has begun its retreat from the Russian front, depleted, demoralised and downtrodden. The war is nearing its end, and each soldier knows that Germany will fall sooner rather than later. Amid brutal hand-to-hand combat Corporal Steiner (James Coburn) efficiently leads his weary but strong platoon through blood, destruction and death. While Steiner may be a war hero to his men, he holds no love for the destruction and murder surrounding him; he is simply doing the job he was assigned and everything he can to keep his men safe. Meanwhile, back at base, Steiner’s Commander, Colonel Brandt (James Mason), and the world-weary Captain Kiesel (David Warner) are about to meet the manipulative, entitled and cowardly Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell), who has transferred to the Russian Front from France, with an eye on achieving the coveted Iron Cross despite the imminent collapse of the Third Reich.
Stransky and Steiner are chalk and cheese, with one a Prussian aristocrat only interested in his safety and security and the other a man who has seen more death and destruction than he cares to remember, his soul permanently scarred by war. For all the violence, battles and blood on display, it is the inner soul of each man and the very nature of humanity and empathy that interests Peckinpah. Here Peckinpah challenges us to explore each man’s moral, ethical and individual decisions and their underlying ambiguity. Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron isn’t interested in simple cliches of good or evil but in the choices and decisions of each soldier, whether rooted in survival, self-interest, manipulation or vague concepts of honour.
Equally fascinating is Peckinpah’s exploration of sexuality, masculinity and power. Here we find gay soldiers blackmailed by superiors at a time when the Third Reich was persecuting and murdering thousands of gay men. While at the same time, young male teenagers with no battle experience were delivered to the front line as mere cannon fodder in a vain attempt to keep the Reich alive, knowing they would die almost instantly. Here Peckinpah’s discussions on masculinity, propaganda, blackmail, silence and secrecy were, and remain, groundbreaking in the war drama genre. However, Cross of Iron does not fair as well in its discussions on sexual violence against women. Peckinpah knows he has something to say but struggles to explore these themes fully in a rushed segment that feels uncertain and obscure in its messaging.
Cross of Iron does not attempt to unpick Nazi ideology but instead opts to explore the impact of that ideology on individuals. It uncovers the horror of political systems built on control, hatred and fanaticism while demonstrating that while individuals may disagree with the political doctrine guiding them, they hold little power to alter or change the events unfolding. In these circumstances, self-preservation becomes all-encompassing for some, while others focus on their own gain. Cross of Iron remains a powerful and thought-provoking film that challenges the traditional tropes of the war narrative by delving into the human psyche, individual choices and skewed moral compasses. Peckinpah’s film reminds us that in war, politicians sit in their ivory towers and play a deadly game of human chess where those below them have little choice but to fight for their existence and soul.