If there is anything in common between the three war films The Cruel Sea (1953), Ice Cold In Alex (1958) and Cross of Iron (1977) then it must be the themes of the isolated, physically or psychologically troubled leader, the challenges to, and reaffirmation of, their masculinity and how all three films contextualise this within an 'anti-war' stance and a reflection on the post-war military experience of British and German personnel.

All three are now being released by Optimum on Blu-ray in June and you can see Ice Cold In Alex and Cross of Iron at special screenings at the Odeon, Panton Street, London from June 17th.

The first two films are highly regarded classics from a period and genre of British film making, that particularly found its greatest articulation in the post-war 1950s, where war time experiences were offered as a cinematic redefinition of national identity. As Britain declined as a sovereign and world power these films rehearsed, what film critic William Whitebait claimed in the New Statesman, "an imaginary present in which we could go on enjoying our finest hours."

These films are juxtaposed with Sam Peckinpah's Cross of Iron where the context is the German conflict with the Russians in 1943 and thematically it examines the psychological toil on the remnants of the German army, confined to a life in bunkers and under constant bombardment, fighting a war they no longer believe in. This idiosyncratic war film uses the class conflict between two officers, the aristocratic Stransky and the anti-authoritarian, working class Steiner, which in itself examines cowardice, bravery and masculine ideals on an interpersonal level.

'the only villain is the sea...'
The Cruel Sea is Ealing Studios' adaptation of the 1951 novel by Nicholas Monsarrat, telling the story, set in 1940, of the HMS Compass Rose, a corvette patrolling and escorting convoys in the Atlantic, protecting them against U-Boat attack.

The film opens with voice-over narration from Commander Ericson (Jack Hawkins) as he describes the trials and tribulations that await those serving at sea: "This is a story of the Battle of the Atlantic, the story of the ocean, two ships, and a handful of men. The men are the heroes; the heroines the ships. The only villain is the sea, the cruel sea, that man has made more cruel..."

Ericson is assigned as commander of the Compass Rose, a recently commissioned corvette crewed by inexperienced sailors and officers, many only having just completed training and not yet seen active service.  Gradually, under Ericson's guidance, we see the crew mature and form a coherent unit as they face not only the U-boats attempting to destroy vital convoys but also the harsh conditions of the ocean itself and the personal problems waiting for them back home. In a similar way to Ice Cold in Alex, the film ushers in an examination of the male psyche under pressure to do his duty that often complicates and questions the norms of duty, survival and masculinity. This theme develops throughout the film's story and as a bond forms between Ericson and Lockhart (Donald Sinden in his first film), his No 1, and the rest of the men under their command.

Male homosocial bonding is again shown as one of the qualities required to survive the harsh conditions aboard ship, depicted in the sober, realist manner that you'd expect from an Ealing film. Whether you are 'man enough' becomes the criteria by which the men on the Compass Rose are judged and as Tony Williams suggests in Structures of Desire: British Cinema, 1939-1955, the film consciously "disavows the homoerotic implications" of these bonds by projecting them "onto the scapegoat figure of the 'unmanly' Sub-Lieutenant Baker (John Warner)." A suggestion of anything other than the homosocial is made 'unfit' during the course of the film and both Ericson and Lockhart are seen as amongst those that epitomise the survival of the fittest, with Lockhart developing as a leader of men under Ericson's influence.

However, the film does not entirely focus on the bond between Ericson and Lockhart. It also offers an interesting depiction of the changing nature of the relationships men have with women in the post-war period. Lockhart has a tentative love affair with Julie Hallam (Virginia McKenna) who works ashore at the naval station. Her sympathetic and caring attitude towards Lockhart is boldly in contrast with Elaine, the selfish showgirl girlfriend of Morell (Denholm Elliot) who doesn't give a damn about her husband and whether he will return safely from patrol. The devastation wreaked by German bombing is also briefly shown when one of the sailors returns to a bombed out home, discovering his sister has been killed during the raid.
... the film belongs to the 'father-son' bond between Hawkins and Sinden
Director Charles Frend's handling of the romantic interludes is interesting but it tends to divert the attention from the inner turmoils that male characters are dealing with and where the losses and devastation they deal with actually result in a rejection of the romantic impulse and where women merely fulfil the role of patient listener. It therefore becomes a very personal and male account within the canvas of some extremely taut battle sequences as the Compass Rose hunts down U-boats and rescues the survivors of torpedoed ships.

While there are some sterling performances to look out for from the young Denholm Elliot. Stanley Baker (as Bennett) and an impossibly photogenic John Stratton (as Ferraby), the film belongs to the 'father-son' bond between Hawkins and Sinden, cemented in a terrible moment when Ericson has to decide whether to save a handful of British sailors or attempt to destroy a German sub that is potentially lurking beneath them. To persue the sub he must kill innocent men. Eventually, having done what he had to do, Ericson cries in front of Lockhart during a quiet confessional between the two men.

As Andrew Spicer suggests in Typical Men, the other cadets, including Lockhart, are lined up here as potential replacement images of their 'father', Ericson. Bennett and Ferraby are rejected - one a working class man outside the film's distinctly middle class milieu and the other an over-sensitive, mentally scarred man removed from conflict - while Lockhart achieves approval. The relationship "allows both to acknowledge and overcome the negative emotions of fear and doubt amid the annihilating rigours of the North Atlantic campaign" and Spicer also sees Lockhart's role as "the responsible figure of young manhood with whom young adolescents should identify." This is interesting at a time when Britain was on the brink of much social change, particularly in the roles of men and women and the rise of the teenager who would eventually reject the merits of deference to their elders.

Hawkins had previously essayed similiar roles in Angels One Five (1952) and The Malta Story (1953) and the stoic 'manliness' he represented here and in The Cruel Sea was symptomatic of the repression still prevalent in the years of post-war austerity and many of the war films made in the 1950s were a reminder that men were still expected to fight for their country. As these films rehearsed those 'finest hours', conscription into the forces didn't end until 1961 and Suez was clearly a moment when the 'Brit myth' itself took a battering in the school of hard knocks.

The Cruel Sea is also an anti-war film in so much that is shows Ericson emotionally closing down after destroying two U-Boats during a futile and wasteful campaign and where Tony Williams sees this, in Structures of Desire, as "a barren and unsatisfactory substitute for the dangerous feelings Ericson chooses to repress."

About the transfer
Gordon Dines's luminous black and white imagery is given a very successful high definition transfer. Perhaps not as good or as consistent a transfer as the one for Ice Cold In Alex, the image is often much softer and grainer. However, it can look superbly detailed, especially in the high contrast night sequences and on faces and costumes. Archive footage of convoys is often interspersed here too and the huge difference in quality is very evident.  The DTS mono audio provides a faithful and crisp reproduction of the dialogue, score and effects.

Special features
Interview with Donald Sinden
A charming interview with Sinden looking back at the making of the film.
Gallery
Collection of stills from the film.

The Cruel Sea
Ealing Studios / General Film Distributors 1953
Optimum Home Entertainment /  OPTBD0628 / Released 13 June 2011 / Blu-ray Region B / B&W PAL / Feature Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1 / Video: BD50 - AVC - 24p / Feature Audio: Mono 2.0 / Audio Codec: LPCM DTS MA / English Language / Cert: PG / Total Running Time: 121 mins approx
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Essentially the story of Ice Cold in Alex concerns the efforts of battle fatigued, alcoholic Captain Anson (a terrific performance from John Mills), escaping the German advance on Tobruk in an ambulance, named 'Katy' by its previous driver, to return to British lines across the desert. Anson and his MSM Tom Pugh (Harry Andrews), having rescued two nurses Diana (Sylvia Syms) and Denise (Diane Clare), then pick up Captain van der Poel (Harry Andrews), a man who claims to be an Afrikaans-speaking South African officer.

Suspicion gradually falls upon van der Poel, highly protective of his back pack and who, on two occasions, manages to persuade the German Afrika Korps to let them continue with their journey. The film slowly becomes both a mystery thriller about van der Poel's true identity and a melodrama about the loyalties within the group as they face the sheer physical effort to get to Alexandria.

Ice Cold In Alex expands on the themes in The Cruel Sea and indeed you could say that desert setting of the film, in which Anson, Pugh, the two nurses and van der Poel face their greatest physical and psychological challenges on their way back to British lines at Alexandria, is a major character in the narrative. This group's journey in an ambulance across the desert wastes clearly demonstrates many of the tropes of 1950s British war films, where 'winning' the war was defined by Christine Geraghty, in British Cinema in the Fifties: Gender, Genre and the 'New Look',  as "waiting and endurance, by small technical actions in cramped spaces, by dogged persistence in harsh landscapes and hostile waters". These harsh landscapes are filled with trials and tribulations, positioning the film as a heroic journey with mythical overtones, as the ambulance crosses minefields, is attacked by Germans, endures the quicksands of the Qattara Depression and finally must be physically hauled over a desert ridge.
... the reverse of the stiff upper lipped characters in British war films 
The central character of Anson is obviously a man at the lowest ebb, the war having taken its toll on his confidence and strength, and who now must find the courage to carry on in the bottom of a gin bottle. The dysfunctional Anson is continually challenged by physically bigger and less psychologically conflicted men in the film. Both Pugh and van der Poel display their own physicality throughout the journey in counterpoint to Anson who for the first half of the film relies on the gin that van der Poel is carrying in his pack to get him through the challenges set by the desert and by the German troops they encounter.

In fact, in their first encounter with the Germans, Anson loses control and his mistakes cost the life of one of the nurses, Denise, hiding in the ambulance. In fact, he makes a pact with his passengers that is predicated, on reaching Alexandria, to all indulge in a glass of ice-cold beer (a scene recontextualised within 1980s British heritage tropes in those Carlsberg lager ads) as a gesture of equality, all working as a team to make it across the desert. His reward then is to partly satisfy his own addiction.

Anson is quite the reverse of the stiff upper lipped characters in British war films to that point and in fact Ice Cold in Alex is perhaps a deconstruction of that mythology. He overcomes his alcohol addiction, and the terrible mistakes he makes (and we often see him either haunted or broken down because of these), to find the courage needed to cross the desert but this is achieved with the care, loyalty and strength provided by Pugh, Diana and, most unconventionally of all, from van der Poel, who is uncovered as Hauptmann Otto Lutz, an engineering officer with the 21st Panzer Division.

This intersection of male and female characters also expresses, what Steve Chibnall sees in his book about the film's director J. Lee Thompson as, "an ersatz family in which... the tensions, suspicions and attractions... flow among the family members" and provide the film with "a continuous emotional under-swell which again sets it apart from most other 1950s' war films." Within these tensions, van der Poel does not meet the fate dished out to so many Germans in British war films and he is configured as an honourable man in the film's concluding, iconic scene in the bar at Alexandria. Without him, Anson and the crew would not be alive and the film confirms him as one of their group facing the desert as the 'greater enemy'.
... an intense character study
John Mills is also, under Thompson's direction, transformed from the stereotypical depiction of the leading romantic hero into a very atypical figure. Thompson and his cinematographer, Gil Taylor, spend a lot of the film showing Anson in a rather disheveled and pathetic state in contrast to the more robust figures of Pugh and van der Poel. Anson is seen as vulnerable and is physically slight compared to the other male characters.

This is something that Gill Plain picks up in John Mills and British Cinema: Masculinity, Identity and Nation, particularly in discussing the costuming for the film as "like the other male characters he spends the film in shorts but, while Anthony Quayle is given an almost distressingly tight pair, Mills sports an excessively baggy outfit, from which his legs emerge as spindly sticks." Quayle, with his bigger torso, is often shown in direct contrast to the more vulnerable Mills and Andrews and it seems that the presence of Sylvia Syms, depicting Diana as she gradually falls for and seduces Anson, defuses the homoerotic tensions between the three male characters.

The key scene, as Plain sees it, is the tortuous attempt to get the ambulance over the desert ridge by use of the crank handle. When Diana takes her attention off the handle and the ambulance careers back down the ridge, Anson hurls abuse at her and then sits in the desert, deeply upset. He is comforted first by Pugh and then by Diana, in a symbolic moment to "soothe the fractious child" and codify the relationships between all three. Thompson turns the novel by Christopher Landon into an intense character study and a fairly gripping thriller with the ambulance's initial attempt to cross the minefield and the later rescue of van der Poel from the quicksands after the others catch him using a radio transmitter in his back pack as two standout moments.

He's aided by a completely committed cast of British actors and a landscape stunningly photographed by Gil Taylor in a stark black and white palette. It is ironic that as the film was released during the Suez crisis, it was perhaps both offering some moral support to audiences who could clearly see that the Empire was waning and also suggesting that national differences could be overcome in the name of common humanity.

About the transfer
Gil Taylor's black and white imagery is beautifully presented in this high definition transfer. It's stunning. Very occasionally the image is soft and displays some slight inconsistencies but overall it is very detailed, with robust contrast and the appropriate amount of grain. Sweaty faces and bodies, clothing, vehicles all stand out in their glory. The DTS mono audio is perfectly acceptable in its crisp reproduction of the dialogue, score and effects. 

Special features
Interview with Sylvia Syms
Lovely 20 minute recollection from Syms as to how she got the part, the horrors of location filming in Libya, her relationship with Mills, Quayle and Andrews and the censoring of the love scene.
John Mills’ home movie footage
15 minutes of Mills' own silent 16mm colour footage shot on location in Libya.
Trailer
Behind the Scenes Photo Gallery
Nice collection of candid behind the scenes images from the film's production.

Ice Cold in Alex
Associated British Pictures 1958
Optimum Home Entertainment / OPTBD0670 / Released 13 June 2011 / Blu-ray Region B / B&W PAL / Feature Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 / Video: BD50 - AVC - 24p / Feature Audio: Mono 2.0 / Audio Codec: LPCM DTS MA / English Language / Cert: PG / Total Running Time: 129 mins approx
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Set on the Eastern Front in World War II, Sam Peckinpah's Cross of Iron is a study of class struggle and masculine pride under bombardment. Bombardment is the key word here because the majority of the film is constructed around numerous explosions and gun battles, filmed in Peckinpah's customary slow motion. His aesthetic of finely choreographed screen violence has gone on to influence action directors who came along later, including John Woo, John Milius, Quentin Tarantino, Kathryn Bigelow and Michael Mann.

The retreat from the Taman Peninsula in 1943 is told through the antagonism between two characters, the weary, hard bitten Steiner (James Coburn) and the aristocratic Stransky (Maximillian Schell). Stransky arrives on the Front, newly posted from France, with the express intention, so he tells his the regimental commander Brandt (James Mason), of winning the Iron Cross. The relationship between Stransky and Steiner is then established in the initial scenes in the bunker and then throughout the film as an exemplar of Peckinpah's idea that these men are prisoners of their own fate, essentially tragic figures attempting to find redemption in a cruel and violent world. The bunker mentality is also a metaphor for Peckinpah's very male view of the world. Here the German troops are filthy, scavenging survivors, loyal only to each other and wherein the politics of the war are irrelevant and the differences between officers and ordinary grunts is very realistically highlighted.
... a man dead to any experiences other than war.
Steiner resents the officers, his detestation for authority based on his view of them only as absurd careerists, and his 'love' is specifically directed at his men, even when he has a romantic interlude with a nurse after being treated for shell shock in an army hospital. The hospital scene is a bold sequence, quite hallucinatory in nature, as he sees the patients on the ward briefly transformed into those he serves with, underscoring the horror and futility of war. As the battle rages, Stransky will, it seems, do anything to be personally rewarded the Iron Cross, as a refutation of his reputation as a coward.

This includes the reinforcing of a negative gay subtext in the film which centres around the two men that Stransky blackmails after he discovers their illicit homosexual affair. One of them, Treibig, is shown as a weak character manipulated by Stransky into providing false accounts about his leadership, and thus earn him the medal he so desires, and then into carrying out his orders to slaughter Steiner's platoon as it returns from the Russian lines. Steiner himself guns Treibig down after he survives the shoot out. Schell's grandiose performance, all oily, preening charm, is matched by Coburn's essay in weariness, of a man dead to any experiences other than war.

When Steiner returns from the hospital, he discovers that Zoll, a Nazi Party member has been attached to the unit and this is the film's only overt nod to Nazism, apart from the propagandist images featured in the opening titles. Peckinpah certainly does not indulge in glorifying one of the most demonized military machines in history and uses all of his German characters, except the Party member, as anti-Nazi figures, with soldiers referring to Zoll as "Nazi pigshit". Stransky distances himself from the Nazis by declaring himself to be a Prussian aristocrat, declaring Hitler and his cronies to be completely inferior to him and his representation of the Prussian values of self sacrifice and military dominance. Steiner is equally dismissive of the Party, claiming to fight not for the good of Germany but merely for the safety of his comrades.
"then I will show you where the Iron Crosses grow"
Even though we are asked to identify with Stransky as the film's "villain", he does undertake an interesting journey through the film, initially manipulating those around him to better his position in the unit but then finally understanding his own inadequacy in the face of battle. Brandt suspects Stransky is lying when he uses Steiner and Treibig to confirm his leadership in a counterattack against the Russians. When Steiner refuses to lie on Steiner's behalf, the film sets up the clash of wills between the two men and one that leads, through Stransky's hatred of Steiner, to the end of the film where both men, caught in the Russian advance as they confront each other, resign themselves to fighting the war side by side. It's a highly cynical ending too, with Steiner laughing his head off at Stransky as he struggles to reload his rifle, finding cruel amusement in the futility and disillusionment they are both reduced to in an unresolved climax.

Steiner's alienation is one that is preempted earlier in the film when he confronts Brandt and his fellow officer Kiesel (David Warner in an effective supporting role) with an outburst regarding them and the army, "I hate all officers, all the Stranskys, all the Treibigs, all the Iron Cross scavengers, and the whole German army." It finds a lyrical counterpart in this closing scene where he offers Stransky a real chance to earn that medal after Stransky declares, "I will show you how a Prussian officer can fight," as they turn to face the Russians together and he remarks in return, "then I will show you where the Iron Crosses grow."

Peckinpah certainly shouldn't be accused of trotting out the usual anti-war film cliches and the film definitely avoids intellectual hand-wringing even if by the same token it is homophobic to the extent that it trots out the usual depiction of gay men at war as morally weak targets for blackmail when there is much recorded history about the courage and bravery of such men that demonstrates the contrary. Again, as a curious extension of this, he shows the male inhabitants of the male-only bunker, amidst the carnage, physically comforting one another and aping the domestic relationships between men and women.
"stare resolutely into the eye of destruction"
However, for all the homosocial bonding that Peckinpah reveals, the sequence where Steiner's unit, attempting to return to their lines, capture a group of female Russian soldiers is never really going to be awarded anything but a red card for its overt misogyny. In a particularly graphic scene, one of the women is sexually abused by Zoll and when she retaliates and bites his genitals off, he kills her. Steiner, horrified, locks him in with the rest of the women and they exact their revenge. As Gabrielle Murray points out in her article on the film at Senses of Cinema, "These women are portrayed as incapable of fair combat, they resort to using their sexuality to trick and cajole Steiner's men. The misogyny of this sequence is palpable as the female soldiers are ultimately portrayed as a pack of dogs circling helpless prey".

This all leaves Cross of Iron as a rather nihilistic experience and its blurring of much of the moral and political background to the conflict in favour of a closer examination of how men behave in conflict situations isn't entirely surprising from Peckinpah, a director who strikes you as a man who is never really able to make his mind up about his own position regarding war, particularly the aestheticising and glorification of violence. This is a process that preoccupied Peckinpah and, in Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies, Stephen Prince sees Cross of Iron as his attempt to "stare resolutely into the eye of destruction and observe its ugly effects on those who are subject to it." The combat scenes and bloodshed can be numbing in their continuous intensity but then that might be the reaction, or lack of one, he was looking for. They retain their power to this day.

About the transfer
A robust looking high definition picture with some fantastic detail and showing off John Coquillon's almost sepia toned cinematography to great effect. It has a tendency to look a wee bit glossy at times but the film grain is present and correct in most sequences, particularly the battle scenes, and it is not without its intermittent share of speckles and damage. However, the detail on faces, uniforms and the interiors is very sharp and consistent. Probably the best the film has ever looked on any format. The DTS mono sound copes very well with the ever present explosions and gunfire and dialogue is crisp and clear.

Special features
Passion & Poetry - Sam Peckinpah's War  (46:00): Mike Siegel's excellent documentary using filmed interviews, archive audio clips, archive photography, footage from behind the scenes on location in Yugoslavia and actual war reportage. This takes you from casting, the tonal shifts of the scripting, how Roger Fritz ended up playing Triebig, through to Peckinpah's volatility with his producer Wolf Hartwig. This also covers the troubled production in Yugoslavia when much of the equipment promised for the combat scenes never turned up. Copious on-set audio interviews with Peckinpah, Schell, Mason and Coburn. Coburn also makes an on screen appearance and offers his thoughts on the character of Steiner and director Peckinpah.
On Location
Fascinating on set audio interviews from 1976 accompanied by a wealth of colour and sepia behind the scenes production stills and sections of score: Sam Peckinpah (5:06) / James Coburn  (5:30) / James Mason (6:05) / Maximilian Schell (4:35) / David Warner  (3:14). Soundbites from these also appear in Siegel's documentary. 
Kr├╝ger Kisses Kern (8:27)
An extended interview with Vadim Glowna and his engrossing tale of the spat he had with Peckinpah that led to him writing a long letter to the director and rewriting the scene in the bunker where Kern loses it at the birthday party
Letters From Vadim to Sam Featurette (3:48)
Correspondence between Glowna and Peckinpah as discussed in the interview.
Vadim & Sam - Son & Dad Featurette (5:55)
More from Glowna about his love-hate relationship with Peckinpah and how they eventually found equanimity.
Cutting Room Floor Featurette (4:19)
Improvising scenes and editing Cross of Iron and the material that didn't make it into the final cut. With Roger Fritz, Senta Berger and David Warner.
Mike's Homemovies Featurette - Steiner meets Kiesel again (7:16)
Coverage of Jeff Slater and Mike Siegel's 2000 Peckinpah retrospective in Padua, featuring Coburn and Warner talking about the making of the film.
Steiner In Japan (2:02mins)
While promoting the film in Japan Peckinpah and Coburn made a number of Rockingham commercials. And here they are. 
German Trailer (3:10)
USA TV-Spot  (0:30)
USA/UK Trailer (3:42)

Cross of Iron
EMI Films / Incorporated Television Company (ITC) / Radiant Film GmbH / Rapid Film / Terra-Filmkunst 1977
Optimum Home Entertainment / OPTBD0627 / Released 6 June 2011 / Blu-ray Region B / Colour PAL / Feature Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 / Video: BD50 - AVC - 24p / Feature Audio: Mono 2.0 / Audio Codec: LPCM DTS MA / English and German Language / Cert: 18 / Total Running Time: 127 mins approx

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