There really is no reason at all to rank any artists work in terms of which works are the ‘greatest’ (‘worst’ is unquestionably easier to determine). Honestly it’s simply a way to attract attention and provoke discussion/disagreement and thus readership/viewership. But in this case I make an exception. Despite the number of brilliant stand-alone sequences in ‘Straw Dogs’, ‘The Wild Bunch’ etc. I’m proposing the above set-piece battlefield sequence from Peckinpah’s criminally underseen 1977 ‘Cross Of Iron’ as his greatest accomplishment. Not the whole movie, of course–I think ‘Wild Bunch’ still holds that place of honor with little controversy. But the ‘demarcation’ scene (as its come to be known) is frequently excerpted from ‘Cross Of Iron’ and studied for its many wonders, both technically and emotionally.

Whenever somebody asks me what a director really does, I steer them toward this sequence and tell them that, as scripted, the scene took up two and one-half pages. Peckinpah took the bare bones description of the action and developed it into a masterful, heartbreaking seven minute sequence of astonishingly lyrical and brutally violent action. I can’t even get my head around how he planned, shot and edited this scene or how long it took to capture. But I remember hearing from somebody who worked with him that Peckinpah was a director who never stopped shooting, compulsively inventing new set-ups, bits of business, whole sub-storylines within scenes and often doing it completely off the cuff. Something of that sort may have happened here, as the ‘demarcation’ scene always feels to me like the work of a master-in-motion, a composer who can’t notate the music quickly enough as inspiration pours fourth…

To truly appreciate the sequence, go to the ‘Cross Of Iron’ Wikipedia page and read a run-down of the plot and what leads us to the above.


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