Sunday, September 14, 2008
I believe God is a sadist, but probably doesn't know it.
Sam Peckinpah reportedly viewed Stanley Kubrick as his rival through much of his career. Why he felt he was in competition with a director whose work had little in common with his is unclear, but Peckinpah probably didn't feel the need to explain his grudges. With this in mind, it's easy to see 1977's WWII drama Cross of Iron as Peckinpah's Paths of Glory. Both films have as their protagonist a strong, rebellious officer at ideological odds with an officious, conformist superior, and both feature a pivotal scene where the protagonist tells a seemingly sympathetic commanding officer that he's a hypocrite. But where Paths of Glory unfolds with chess-like precision, Cross of Iron is more tuned to the chaos of battle. It's a shaggy, sometimes aimless, but always entertaining variation on one of Peckinpah's favorite kinds of stories - the rugged individualist vs. the world.
Sargeant Rolf Steiner (James Coburn) is the archetypal Peckinpah hero, a fearless soldier with no allegiance to ideology. Steiner commands a Wehrmacht platoon on the Eastern Front; the platoon is being pummeled by the Russians, and the German commanders we meet, like the pragmatic Brandt (James Mason) and the disillusioned Kiesel (David Warner), are not the nefarious, mustache-twisting Nazis we're used to. Peckinpah is less interested in the inexplicable evil of Hitler and his devout followers than in the nationalistic pride and conformity that enabled the party's rise. This is personified by Captain Stransky (Maximillian Schell), whose single-minded desire to win the Iron Cross and bring honor to his family name leads to his corruption. The opposition between Steiner and Stransky is not unlike the one between Pike Bishop and Deke Thorton, with self-reliance (and huge balls) held up as the only reasonable choice in a corrupt society.
The tension between Stransky and Steiner is effectively played by Coburn and Schell, and Cross of Iron appears to be headed towards an epic battle of wills between the two men. Then the film takes a left turn midway and never really regains its focus. Whether the troubled production or Peckinpah's own demons are to blame, Cross of Iron becomes an uneasy mix between an allegory of the absurdity of war and a meat-and-potatoes combat movie. The film lacks the poetry of Peckinpah's best work, with his trademark preoccupations seeming more crude than usual as a result. Steiner's heroism in stopping the rape of a Russian hostage is weakened by Peckinpah's obvious distrust of women. The implication that fascism is a form of repressed homosexual desire, provocative in Bertolucci's 1900, is only a cartoonish expression of hetero panic. Yet Peckinpah is blissfully oblivious to the homoerotic undertones of the slow-mo, bullet-riddled martyrs' deaths he awards his heroic soldiers. The romantic quality that defined these scenes in The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid becomes so predictable and protracted that it feels like self-parody.
Still, Cross of Iron is worth seeing as an example of a kind of action movie that doesn't exist anymore. If the sensory assault of Saving Private Ryan is the logical end to what Peckinpah began, than it follows that there was no where to go except the aestheticized, hyperreal action of The Matrix and its imitators. In Cross of Iron, when a tank crashes through a brick wall, we know it's a real tank and a real wall, and the physical reality alone lends the film the kind of tension that a computer can only simulate (it hasn't been taught about the flesh). Cross of Iron isn't the smartest or most elegant of Peckinpah's films, but it has guts, and guts is enough.