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.

11 comments:

Matthew H. said...

Great post! Just this morning I was talking to a friend of mine in the industry who was reminding me about Kathryn Bigelow's latest effort "The Hurt Locker." Sounds like it may be a combination of the new school and the old school as far as war films go.

It's unfortunate that Cross Of Iron has never received a proper treatment on dvd/Blu-Ray in the states. I know there is a disc available here but the quality isn't very good at all. Yeah, it is strange that Peckinpah saw himself in the Kubrick vein. Weird. I would align Peckinpah with Fuller more than Kubrick. But as much as I love Kubrick and think overall he is the better director Peckinpah is the director I think most modern filmmakers are referencing (i.e. Zack Snyder with his overuse of slow motion).

James said...

I recall being seriously let down by this one. It was effective at demonstrating just what a meat grinder life on the eastern front was, but I found its message on the absurdity of the "war is glorious" mindset to be hollow considering how Peckinpah stylizes everything.

Ivan said...

Mr. Bemis,
A good, thoughtful essay about a flawed film – thanks!

Honestly, I try not to think about Cross of Iron’s flaws, and stick with the action and mayhem, which I think is top-notch. Your comment about the “kind of action movie that doesn't exist anymore” is spot on, though. Lately I’ve really grown to appreciate those “old school” action films, like Zulu or Tora! Tora! Tora! A stuntman running for his life from an exploding plane, or hundreds of actual tribesmen swarming over a hill always trumps CGI.

This is the first I’ve heard of this Peckinpah/Kubrick rivalry - but I wouldn’t be surprised. I wonder if it stemmed from their time working on One-Eyed Jacks? Stanley K. was already established as a director, and I’m sure the unruly Sam P. considered the cool and intellectual Kubrick as either a creep or a phony. Then Peckinpah sees Columbia bend over backwards for Dr. Strangelove (even holding up the release of Fail-Safe), while butchering Major Dundee (not that I think the restored Dundee is anything other than a snooze, but I can see Sam’s point).
But this is all speculation on my part.

However, the more I learn about him, the more I feel that Peckinpah was really his own worst enemy. I could never understand how so many other directors could get so much freedom (or second chances, like Friedkin or Frankenheimer – and do well with them), and why Peckinpah always wound up under the heel of creeps like MGM’s James Aubrey, or routinely getting his budget slashed.

Be that as it may, The Wild Bunch, The Getaway, Straw Dogs and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia are still great movies for me.

Bemis said...

Interesting theory - perhaps Kubrick was the Matt Hooper to Peckinpah's Quint.

Ivan said...

"perhaps Kubrick was the Matt Hooper to Peckinpah's Quint"

That is an awesome analogy--so would the shark be the studio system? And do we look at this from a Spielbergian perspective (Hooper survives and swims off after Quint has been torn to shreds and had his guts sprayed) or the Benchleyian (both Quint and Hooper are destroyed, although the order is reversed)?

I would venture the Spielbergian, although I've heard some say working with Cruise and Kidman killed Kubrick (the studio shark finally catching up with the cool intellectual?).

This is fun!

Matthew H. said...

I personally don't think Cruise and Kidman (two actors I'm not a fan of) are what "killed" Kubrick. I think Kubrick took too much time off to direct a film (I mean how many years of a gap was there between Full Metal and EWS?) and then proceeded to take more time than necessary on Eyes Wide Shut and simply burned himself out.

And the studios were completely behind him while he made Eyes Wide Shut...I mean how many directors could essentially have the power to build their own sets of New York City so that they wouldn't have to be far away from their home in England? All of us could probably count them on one hand.

He took too long to get back in the saddle. Thats my feeling anyway.

As for the Matt Hooper/Quint analogy (a very good one I might add)...The studio system backed Kubrick more than say someone like Peckinpah because the bottom line was SK brought Warner Bros. quite a bit of scratch for someone who was working on a fairly independent (disconnected from Hollywood - i don't mean low budget) level more or less. Peckinpah's films RARELY made the studios money and to be fair he's lucky he was able to make as many films as he did.

Sam Fuller in my opinion was auteur most di@#$% by the studios. White Dog is one of the best films I've ever seen and if it had been properly released I am certain it would have been a hit. Can't wait for the criterion release of that one coming out in Dec.!

Bemis said...

I can't see actors getting the best of Kubrick; I think Kidman does her best work in Eyes Wide Shut, and Kubrick uses Cruise much as he did Ryan O'Neal in Barry Lyndon. I actually think Cruise is an effective actor because he'll say anything a director wants him to with complete conviction, which has been subverted to strong effect by several directors (and, Scientology craziness aside, I think Cruise deserves more credit than he gets for allowing directors to manipulate his pretty-boy image).

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cialis online said...

Cross Of Iron is a masterpiece, one of the greatest anti-war, anti-authoritarian movies. It is one of director Sam Peckinpah's two finest works -- the other being The Wild Bunch. It deserves to be ranked in the same great war movie company as Apocalypse Now, Das Boot, Full Metal Jacket, Paths Of Glory, Saving Private Ryan, Seven Samurai, and Zulu.

cialis online said...

I have a Cross of Iron VHS made by "Media," which runs 132 min and which, though full-frame (except for a short sequence in which the Russian boy is killed), is infinitely better than the poorly restored, shorter Hen's Tooth full-frame, DVD. The DVD from Oz is shorter than my VHS by 5 min. A few years ago in London, I saw a Cross of Iron released by UK Warner's, also shorter than my VHS. When will the studio that owns the rights to this masterpiece give us a WS, digitally remastered, Region 1 DVD of this masterpiece? It's about time!