Coburn and Mason play their parts well, but it is the strength of the performances from the smaller cast members that makes this so engaging. By the end, it really matters who lives and who dies and this investment helps to give the climactic moments real tension and drama. These climactic battle scenes are directed with care and attention to detail. Behind the scenes Peckinpah’s Vodka-drenched set was hindered by economic drought, but he still managed to conjure large-scale battles with tanks and plenty of explosions.
But, there are also directorial signatures and flourishes as Peckinpah uses slow-motion cameras to capture the horror of death and destruction to remind his audience of the real cost of war. There is no glory in war, only tragedy and survival. These flourishes aside, Cross of Iron is not an easy watch. It will ask you to think, and leave you puzzled and confused at times. There seem to be large hunks of movie that never quite made it to the cutting-room floor. Early on in the film, Coburn is wounded and wakes up in hosptial, gets drunk and has sex with a nurse. It all feels surplus and completely bizarre until we get back to the bunker again and carry on as if this never happened. If Peckinpah wanted to tell his audience that Coburn couldn’t live outside the platoon, away from his ‘real’ family, anything less than this narrative sledge-hammer would have done just fine.
There are other moments like this too, and the film drags its heels at times. It is also quite difficult to find anyone to identify with in the off-beat war film. Everyone seems to be pretty bat-shit nuts and their characters all exist in a kind of Nazi-not-really-Nazi hinterland. The odd cocktail of accents from the multi-national cast make it easy to get confused and forget which war this was supposed to be and who we are rooting for. The Blu-Ray remastering has definitely brought greater clarity to this experience, but it is James Mason who benefits most. His impeccably groomed mustache and splendid eye-brows steal every one of his scenes with a hirsute elegance that has rightfully been restored to High Definition. There has been little or no effort to improve the quality of the sound-track or effects, which reminded me of episodes of the A-Team... and while the images were clearer, the colour-palette remains murky and unremarkable.
There are some great extras on the disc, however. The various documentaries and interviews reveal, in graphic detail, the chaotic methods of Sam Peckinpah and offer insight into his passion, his creativity and his addiction. Peckinpah remains one of the great characters of modern cinema and these extras reveal why his works have inspired so many other directors to strive harder to capture their vision on film. Cross of Iron is considered by some to be one of the finest war movies ever made, but I can’t help but feel that there are plenty of others that have tackled similar themes with greater precision, coherence and success. Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now to name a few. Perhaps Cross of Iron simply hasn’t aged as well as other great classics, or perhaps it just wasn’t that watchable to begin with. I can’t help but feel that it was the chaotic, booze-fueled personality that characterized Peckinpah that also makes his film feel inebriated, improvised and incomplete. According to his cast, Peckinpah drank four bottle of vodka each day during filming. I couldn’t even say “coherent film” after that much booze, let alone make one.