Sam Peckinpah's vision of war is one that remains profoundly horrifyingEMI FILMS

Cross of Iron is one of those films in which no one has a clue. With slick plot, excellent performances, and harrowing direction from Sam Peckinpah at his best, the overall impression is of madness committed to celluloid; of the gates of hell slamming open and the demonic hordes flying across the screen. Guts spill out; men appear with crazed glints in their eyes; explosions fill the screen; acts of unforgivable violence. People laugh while killing, and while being killed.

“War is a profoundly amoral thing – to be endured and survived, but not to be glorified.”

Patrols are lost, attacks are launched when there should be defences, and men base their entire moral systems around the acquisition of a piece of metal (the titular Iron Cross) - it is a film where no one knows precisely what they are meant to be doing, and no one is there to tell them. It is a film about the madness of war, and the destruction of morality in the face of a nightmare.

This destruction is ably directed by Sam Peckinpah, who uses his trademark blend of amorality and violence to great effect, so assaulting the viewer with horror that by the end they can do nothing except sit there and watch, overwhelmed. He cuts this assault on the senses with a rich vein of sarcastic humour, with a character’s early declaration that they have come to the cauldron of Russia to “win the Iron Cross” being met with a wry response of “I can give you one of mine.” The offer is not made cuttingly, but in the same way one might offer a friend a can of beer.

Apathy permeates the film, with characters refusing to push back against the horror, instead embracing it and trying to survive it. Towards the end of the film, Kiesel (along with Steiner and Brandt, one of the few redeemable characters in the film) asks “what will we do when we lose the war?” Brandt pauses, before replying “prepare for the next one.” Peckinpah does not treat Cross of Iron as a redemptive exercise - in his universe, man is sinful, violence is necessary, and we can do nothing except endure the madness. Some of his characters grit their teeth and plough through, an attitude embodied by Colonel Brandt, played with grim (and wonderfully voiced) precision by James Mason.

Others crack under the chaos, trying to throw up a protective coating of ideology around themselves only to find it crumbling when it encounters the horror of war. For this, we can look to Stransky, the film’s primary antagonist who, after spending much of the film dodging trouble in his vain, havoc attempts to seek martial glory, dies in the dirt, his helmet on back-to-front as he realises he does not know how to operate his submachine-gun.

Some endure in a spirit of duty, others crack, still more try to ride it out. To Steiner, war is a profoundly amoral thing – to be endured and survived, but not to be glorified. So, when the film comes to an end in the middle of a titanic battle, with explosions echoing across the soundtrack and people falling left, right and centre, the strains of a children’s song come in, competing with the gunfire to create a perverted fusion of innocence lost and hell being opened (the same contrast between childishness and militarism is made in the title sequence, to great effect). And in this fusion, the last thing we see is Steiner laughing as a Russian child-soldier shrugs and drops his weapon, almost despairing of the idiocy of the violence.

Like Steiner and his men, we are left in the dark as to the overarching causes of the madness, and can only endure it. Cross of Iron is a nightmarish masterpiece. It is overwhelmingly violent, incredibly well-directed, and remains one of the best anti-war films of all time, forty years on from its release.

Look upon the madness, and marvel

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