Pelette and I took in the late-period Sam Peckinpaugh flick Cross Of Iron (1976) at Cinematheque on Saturday night. I'm sure that Sean will be posting a fuller and more insightful review soon, but in the meantime my humble and semi-literate efforts will have to suffice.
You can read the allmovie guide synopsis, but briefly: the film's setting is the Crimea in 1943, when the writing was clearly visible on the wall for the German regiments. James Coburn is Rolf Steiner, a fearless platoon leader who's only loyalty is to his men, James Mason is the well-intentioned and war-weary commandant (with David Warner--not playing an alien and/or miserable creep!--as his slightly shell-shocked Captain and intellectual confidant), and Max Schell is the Prussian aristocrat Captain Stransky: newly-arrived, old-school, uninterested in Hitler and his ideology, and on the make to pick up the Iron Cross as quickly and cheaply as possible. The conflict between Stransky and Steiner is really the basis of what plot there is here, and things start to heat up when the former's claim to the Cross, based on supposed valorous conduct in battle, is gainsaid by Steiner (a grunt who already has the IC) and his platoon. Steiner becomes a problem to be got rid of...
Cross Of Iron certainly contains a lot of different and interesting technical elements. The film's epilogue is a quote from Bertolt Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, which is quite telling as, while I wouldn't characterize Peckinpaugh's techniques as "Brechtian" exactly, there are a number of things, like the unexpected use of montage and the very occasional eruption of orchestral soundtrack that break up the rhythm of the film. All of this is filtered through the director's tendency to live in the moment and to big it up, American-style. Stylistically, there is a large helping of satire, some of it overtly comic (as in the excellent scene where Schell makes his introductions to Mason and Warner), more than a little chunk of melodrama and, this being Peckinpaugh, a generous spread of things and people being shot and blown up...in slow motion, of course. "I say, anyone for tennis..?"
It's a good flick that certainly doesn't feel long at 2-and-a-quarter hours (this non-pristine European print contained an extra 11 minutes, where I don't know), but it is bedevilled by inconsistency. The script is one of the problems. There are great internal scenes and parts of scenes almost worthy of David Lean, and others, such as those revolving around Steiner's time recovering in the infirmary, that are a bit threadbare. The stylistic balance is also a bit out of whack. A lot of the film, perhaps by commercial necessity, is action and while a lot of it's good--the stealth movements by Steiner's platoon are particularly suspenseful--I got the distinct impression of different versions of the film competing for space. I for one would have preferred a few more scenes with Coburn, Mason and Schell and a few less of Russkies being machine-gunned in slo-mo. Given all of these contrasting and often conflicting elements, pacing is actually pretty good, with the exception of the ending which is very abrupt. The movie's really lacking a final scene (mostly due to production problems, I gather).
The acting's a strength. Lots of good moments from the minor players, but the principals are in fine form. Schell is at his oily and dangerous best (albeit slightly undercut by his character's buffoonery); Coburn's cod-German accent escapes him when he gets agitated, but he pulls off Steiner's combination of humanity and necessary ruthlessness brilliantly. Mason gets less of the glory but he's exemplary as the fatherly commander with a sense of perspective who's trying to salvage what lives, honour and dignity he can out of a bad and worsening situation. There's also a really interesting element of theatricality about the film that creates these odd, what I can only describe as "out of time" moments (viz the scene where Steiner frees the Russian boy that his platoon captured), which contrast effectively with the claustrophobic and impending doom-laden trench settings.
As I said earlier, C of I's a film that draws attention to its own technique, certainly more so than the main-sequence Peckinpaughs that I've seen. A good film that could have been better. If you like Peckinpaugh, you're surely going to find lots to like here, and if you don't, hey: he blowed up REAL good!!