Sam Peckinpah’s searing indictment of war Cross of Iron conquers 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray with a world-class restoration effort from StudioCanal. Starring James Coburn, James Mason, and Maximillian Schell, the film’s blistering unrelenting carnage buttressed with Peckinpah’s iconic montage editing paints a bleak picture of war in the face of hubris during the waning days of WWII. StudioCanal issues an amazing HDR transfer, crackling great audio, and plenty of bonus features to sort through. Highly Recommended
As is the case with many of Sam Peckinpah’s films - either as writer or director - there’s a lot to unpack. The filmmaker could take a simple, straightforward drama of a cowboy coming home, a band of thieves in the old west, or an abandoned German platoon and turn it into cinematic gold. He has a way to present action with a blistering intensity but never forgetting the human element of such simple emotions as ego, greed, and hatred.
With Cross of Iron Peckinpah pits the glory and ego-driven officer Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell) against the honest and brave Sargent Steiner (James Coburn). When the Russians lead a massive offensive against the encamped Germans, it’s Steiner who rises to the occasion to fight a successful counter-offensive while Stransky hid like a rat in his bunker. Recovering from his wounds, Steiner finds Stransky taking credit for the military maneuver putting himself in line for the Iron Cross. A threat to his misplaced sense of glory, Stransky purposefully fails to inform Steiner’s platoon of a pullout to avoid incoming Russian forces. Now Steiner is forced to lead his men through hostile territory if they hope to survive.
To get a bit of silliness out of the way, I have a very difficult time viewing Peckinpah’s films without calling back to Monty Python’s “Sam Peckinpah’s Salad Days” sketch. It’s a hilarious takedown of the filmmaker’s signature usage of time-defying slow motion and montage editing to depict grotesque and shocking violence. They’re not making fun of any one film as much as the idea of what Peckinpah would do with a simple setup of a group of people out for a picnic. It’s because of this sketch that whenever I'm revisiting this film or The Wild Bunch, I inevitably have to pause the film and turn this bit on just to get the laughs out of the way.
Alright, now that nonsense is over, I can move on. What I love about Cross of Iron is that it’s a war film that dramatically and effectively depicts the horrors of war without glorifying it. This isn’t a film about brave bigger-than-life men making their stand, it’s about ordinary men hoping to survive at all costs - least of all their humanity. It depicts medal-hungry glory hounds like Schell’s Stransky with absolute disdain while showcasing real soldiers that do the actual fighting like Coburn’s Steiner as the actual heroes simply because the only thing they want and need is to survive. Also, it's damned impressive to be painting Germans in a sympathetic light. The film just as easily could have been Russian soldiers pinned down by Germans, but Peckinpah's controversial choice makes it a more interesting film. The combat sequences are visceral, shocking, and exciting, but they’re not the driving force of the film. It’s this power dynamic of two sets of morals that makes the film a blisteringly paced and hypnotic experience.
A surprise flop in the U.S. critically and financially, it found long legs and praise throughout Europe. Over the years there’s been a necessary and generous reappraisal of the film. Peckinpah may have been hitting new heights of his substance abuse issues while pulling the film together, but the final product speaks volumes. I was in my early teens when I came across this film. I didn’t really know who Peckinpah was yet and hadn’t developed an affinity for his work, but Cross of Iron certainly put me on the path. I still feel The Wild Bunch is his crowning achievement, but I’ll admit I'm genre biased.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Cross of Iron charges the lines to 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray from StudioCanal. We were only given a single 4K check disc to review so I can’t speak to the Blu-ray disc that would otherwise come with this SteelBook offering. Imprint Films out of Australia will also have this film available on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray as well (we’ll link to it at the end). For the 4K, the film and initial bonus features occupy a BD-100 disc. An additional Blu-ray will be supplied for 1080p and the same bonus features, with an extra Blu-ray disc for additional bonus features. Not sure if those will be Region Free but my bet is Region B locked.
Admittedly Cross of Iron isn’t a film I often come back to. It’s probably one I watch every five or so years if I spot it at my library and have the whim to pick it up. I’ve never owned it. My last viewing was the 2018 Blu-ray maybe three or so years ago and I remember being very impressed by that disc’s A/V presentation. This new 2160p HDR transfer, however, is simply stunning. Every line in every face, every worn patch on every uniform, every piece of grit and debris thrown into the air is on display with crystal clear clarity. Film grain is natural and cinematic without appearing too noisy or out of place.
The colors for this film have always had a strangely vintage-looking yellow tone to them and that’s been replicated here. At least that’s how I’ve always remembered it looking. To that end, it’s not altogether easy to describe primaries in traditional terms beyond saying reds have plenty of pop to them considering the focus on the meatgrinder of combat and the carnage that ensues. Black levels are rich with lovely shadow delineation of an image with plenty of natural depth. That first Russian attack and Cobrun being pinned down surveying the destruction is incredible stuff. The whole film looks amazing so I can’t wait to add a full-packaged version to the collection.
Note - it was reported to us that this disc would have Dolby Vision HDR but my Oppo player didn’t pull that option. I don’t know if that’s a check disc issue - hasn’t been a problem in the past - so it may have just been a misprint in the details.
On the audio front, fans can enjoy a fully restored and dynamic English LPCM 2.0 mix. Dialog is clean and clear throughout without issue. Music cues offer a nice highlight for the film’s soundscape. Action sequences will be the real draw for fans with plenty of heightened gunfire, explosions, and screams of terror and horror echoing throughout the mix. It’s soft and quiet when necessary for those conversational bits, but then it really lets that terror of quiet behind enemy lines make the whole film unnerving. Free of hiss or any kind of serious age-related issues, this is a terrific mix for the film.
Bonus features for Cross of Iron is a nicely stacked pack of materials. I was only able to look at what was on the actual 4K disc because again, we weren’t sent the accompanying Blu-ray discs, but what’s here was pretty solid. Most of the featurettes are focused on marketing and promotional aspects of the film, but the big get is a brand new Audio Commentary from Mike Siegel who spends plenty of time detailing a variety of aspects of the film, how it came together, shooting various sequences, the casting choices of certain characters without leaving dead air or feeling like he was simply reading off prepared cards. Because I haven't seen all of the bonus features I'm withholding a final star-rating, hopefully, my copy will arrive soon and I can update this portion.
4K UHD Disc
Additional Bonus Materials (unreviewed)
Cross of Iron is just one of many masterpieces from Sam Peckinpah. I don't necessarily think his films are flawless, this one among them, but they are such singular and unique experiences they have to be seen again and again. This brutal and intense war film could have been made so many different ways by any variety of filmmakers out there but Peckinpah brought a dynamic edge to the action and a sharp eye for the character drama. StudioCanal has done a marvelous job restoring this film. The HDR10 grade is magnificent while the improved clarity lets you soak every detail of the slow-motion montage carnage. While I haven't been able to review all of the bonus features in this set, it's a stacked assortment and that new audio commentary is well worth time time. Suffice to say in the absence of a domestic release - Highly Recommended For Import