FF120 - Cross of Iron

Intro by Adam Pranica

To read Sam Peckinpah's biography is to understand: Some people just aren't cut out for a normal life. He started young, a rabble-rouser of a ranch kid in central California, skipping school to spend time trapping, branding, and shooting his afternoons away until his frequent fighting and discipline problems in high school inspired his parents to send him to military school.

By 1943 he joined the Marines, and by the end of World War II, he was in China, disarming and repatriating Japanese soldiers. It was here that Peckinpah experienced what many film biographers believed to be his creative inspiration. He came under fire and he witnessed death and torture. Some believe his alcoholism and later his drug addiction started here as well. It is not hard to imagine that some of the mental and emotional problems that haunted him later in life, his mania, his depression, his paranoia, were ignited by those experiences in China, too.

Post-discharge he went to college and got married to a drama student and started directing, the kind of work that necessitates the teamwork that if we are putting it charitably, Peckinpah was just not cut out for. At first he would do something like not show up to work in a necktie. Later on, it would escalate to abuse of stage hands and getting himself kicked off of productions.

We have already had an episode about Major Dundee. That was in 1965. What followed for the next 10 years would be the envy of many a filmmaker of the era and by 1977 he was still totally renowned. I mean, can you believe Hollywood producers, knowing what they knew about Sam Peckinpah, were still willing to pay him to direct King Kong and Superman? I mean, we would have finally been given the King Kong film where he rips the faces off of people, or a Superman film that destroys an entire city block with body counts in the millions. No one would want to see that, right?

By turning those films down Peckinpah chose today's Friendly Fire film Cross of Iron and the challenges he faced and caused during production on a scale of 1-5 Peckinpahs was a perfect score. On location in Europe, under-funded and under-accrued he went into his own pocket to pay experienced crew members when the money from the West German porn producer ran out.

Frequently drunk an ill-tempered, the production would often run out of money, and over time many of the scenes, including the film's final sequence, are improvised. And like a student turning in a paper they wrote the morning after a bender, Cross of Iron manages to pass the class. Kind of a miracle of a film!

What is striking after the death of Sam Peckinpah is the difference between biography and legacy: The truth of Peckinpah's life experience is tragic, and yet the reputation imbued by the films he made and to some degree what he self perpetuated is one of a hard living Hamburger Hamburger Bang Bang kind of life that could be inspirational to a certain kind of person. That it affects his legacy is clear, but many people who stuck with him after the fights, the breakdowns, the divorces, and the films regarded him as a good friend whose complexity enriched their lives.

So when you watch Cross of Iron, know that there is a man behind the camera barely holding it together under the worst of circumstances, which is to say that while we watch James Coburn and Maximilian Schell duke it out on screen, Sam Peckinpah is fighting his own kind of war at the same time. "With each film you just keep hoping he will turn the tide and that the axis powers of his nature retreat for good. What will we do when we have lost the war? Prepare for the next one! On today's Friendly Fire: Cross of Iron.

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