Archive footage opens the film, illustrating the German army in action while bouncing Teutonic music keeps the mood paradoxically light. As the footage filters from monochrome into colour, we catch our first glimpse of Sergeant Steiner (James Coburn).

Steiner commands over a German platoon holed up in trenches during World War 2, tasked with keeping the attacking Russian army at bay. All is as well as it can be under such duress, until Prussian toff Stransky (Maximilian Schnell) is shipped into the camp and assumes command. The harmony soon becomes unbalanced.

But differences are set aside when the Russians get up close and personal, and Steiner has to take his men out onto the battlefields while Stransky cowers in the background.

Following a bloody bout, Steiner winds up in military hospital for a spell before returning to camp, having barely recovered from the shellshock. You can empathise with his disdain, then, when Stransky tells of how he yearns to earn himself an iron cross medal for bravery – and has already told regiment leader Brandt (James Mason) that he is deserving of it. His reasoning is that he "led the counter-attack and threw the Russians out of their positions".

All he needs is two witness signatures to this effect. He has already gained one from privately homosexual officer Triebig (Roger Fritz), and named his other witness as being Steiner – most likely because he believed him to be dead.

Will Steiner sign a witness statement testifying to the bravery of a snivelling coward that he hates? There wouldn’t be much of a film if he did ...

"It’s just a piece of worthless metal" argues Steiner, tossing his own medal in Stransky’s direction and asking why he wants it so badly. There is no real response, just a lot of snivelling. At which point, naturally, Steiner refuses to give his signature.

Oh dear. Two forceful men at loggerheads, in closed quarters and thrust into life-or-death situations that truly rely on their ability to place trust in one another? There’s got to be some dramatic tension there ...

Sprawling running time and iffy German accents aside, CROSS OF IRON is an excellent and typically thought-provoking anti-war film from Sam Peckinpah. The man behind such challenging parables as THE WILD BUNCH and STRAW DOGS had lost none of his ability by the late 1970s to meditate on the machinations and repercussions of violence, nor had his lust for wallowing in its gorier excesses been quelled by age.

On the contrary, IRON is at times a very bloody, very brutal film. Three decades before SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, it showed the true horror of mortal combat – and went one step further, offering an explicit insight into the physical and emotional aftermaths too. More than that, it examines the futility of war and the mindset of those who are sucked into it. Deeper still into proceedings, the male psyche is laid bare and contradictions abound as Peckinpah’s probing becomes ever more subtle, ever more concise.

Coburn is a good lead, doing his best Lee Marvin impersonation, but his supporting cast are stronger. David Warner is great in an atypical role for him; Schnell does Schnell like no-one else can. Mason, as ever, lends an extra layer of class to each scene he graces – despite never attempting an accent like the others.

As intimate as it is epic, as oddly compassionate as it is unapologetically violent, CROSS OF IRON is also filmmaking that is as intelligent as it is visceral. You’d expect nothing less from Peckinpah, and he doesn’t disappoint.

The film comes uncut in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and is enhanced for 16x9 televisions. This 1080p transfer pops with detail and a brighter picture quality than all previous versions of the film. It doesn’t always boast the sharpest images and blacks aren’t the deepest, as this restoration clearly isn’t as extensive as some of the most impressive jobs we’ve seen lately (TAXI DRIVER, APOCALYPSE NOW). A yellowish, near-sepia hint to proceedings seems new too. But, overall, it’s a highly agreeable presentation (struck from an original negative) that exhibits a natural film-like quality throughout.

English audio is provided in choices of English mono and German 2.0 DTS-HD. The former is a largely clean proposition. Slightly quiet on occasion, and at times a tad balanced heavily towards the main speaker, it does nevertheless offer a good playback, age considered. Optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing are well-written and mostly easy to read.

Optimum’s disc opens with a subtly animated main menu page which reproduces the striking cover art. From there, a pop-up scene-selection menu allows access to the main feature via 12 chapters.

Bonus features are very good, although we still don’t get the audio commentary track that features on the Region 1 DVD release.

Here, they begin with the documentary "Passion And Poetry: Sam Peckinpah’s War". This runs for an enjoyable 46 minutes. It offers a wealth of production stills from the film’s shoot, as well as some extremely worthy interviews – both onscreen, and in the form of archive audio snippets. Bolstered by some excellent behind-the-scenes footage, this stands as an entertaining testament to Peckinpah’s inspirational nature as a director.

"On Location" comprises of five archive interviews conducted at the time of the film’s shoot. These are audio interviews only, but are accompanied by a stylish montage of on-location photographs and musical snippets. Peckinpah, Coburn, Mason, Schnell and Warner all offer their individual thoughts over the course of 24 minutes.

The obscurely titled "Kruger Kisses Kern" follows, an 8-minute onscreen interview with co-star Vadim Glowna as he reveals how he managed to expand his initially tiny role in the film.

Vadim contributes to the next two extras: four minutes of reproduced letters sent between him and Peckinpah, set to a gentle score; "Vadim And Sam: Father And Son", a further 6-minute chat with the affable actor reminiscing over his relationship with the great director.

"Steiner In Japan" is brief at only 2 minutes in length, but is priceless anyway. It presents two commercials that Peckinpah and Coburn shot while in Japan to promote IRON in 1977. They’re hilarious.

"Mike’s Home Movies: Steiner And Kiesel Meet Again" finds Warner and Coburn fielding questions from a grateful film-con audience. Despite seemingly engaged in a tacit competition to look more ravaged than each other, they are in good humour and offer decent insight into the making of the film. This runs for 7 minutes.

Four minutes of outtakes look ropey but are nice to have here regardless.

Two lengthy trailers (the German one goes on for almost six minutes!) round off the package, along with a US television spot.

All extras are presented in standard definition.

CROSS OF IRON is a classic anti-war film from one of the best directors of violence that the world of cinema has ever seen. It looks good in HD.

Minor niggles aside, Optimum have produced yet another blu-ray that is worthy of any film fan’s collection.

Review by Stuart Willis

Released by Optimum Home Entertainment
Region 2 PAL
Rated 18
Extras :
see main review