Venturing into All Quiet on the Western Front territory is a daunting challenge for the auteur, who invariably gets his fingerprints wiped by the universality of theme (Paths of Glory made Kubrick a "humanist," after all). Sam Peckinpah has always dwelled in combat so he gives it a go, neuroses and jagged technique and all (an early ambush seems impersonally efficient, but then a freshly emptied machine-gun clip is thrown in slow-mo.) The "bad side of old Mother Russia" sets the stage, it's 1943 but the weary German commander (James Mason) is already pondering what to do once the war is lost. ("Prepare for the next one," David Warner answers. Brecht concurs.) The conflict is as much between Nazis and Russians as it is between the sergeant (James Coburn) who loathes war yet excels at it, and the aristocratic Prussian captain (Maximilian Schell) who desires the eponymous symbol of honor while sending his men to slaughter. Coburn's growling political despair is Peckinpah's, surely, the anchor in a vehement battlefield where the juvenile prisoner freed with a dab of poetry ("Armed without mind, one extreme to another/ Neither works. No man's land") is mowed down an instant later. A bayonet sinking into a soldier's stomach becomes a voluminous spectacle amid smoke, mud and barbed wire, an explosion becomes punctuation -- the editing mirrors a pulverized psyche at the hospital for the maimed, with its echo of Duck, You Sucker and anticipation of The Big Red One. Despite the amplification of his trademark effects, Peckinpah's grand achievement here lies in prodding his barnstormers (and himself) toward unexplored quarters: the sarcasm of the Nazi montage on which the credits are engraved is a new area for the filmmaker, the repressed femininity peeking from beneath the warriors' macho carousing even more so. The slain cherub is revived at the other end of a rifle, female fury is channeled into a gory blowjob -- war is hell, but for Peckinpah it's also the sadist's Olympian joke, Coburn can only laugh the Huston laugh. With Klaus Löwitsch, Vadim Glowna, Dieter Schidor, Burkhard Driest, Roger Fritz, Fred Stillkrauth, Michael Nowka, Véronique Vendell, and Senta Berger.
--- Fernando F. Croce