Here's a brilliant sequence from Sam Peckinpah's "Cross Of Iron" (1977) which, when compared to what was actually scripted, beautifully shows exactly what a great director does with a screenplay that they didn't write. Although Peckinpah was a writer (for awhile) before he became a director, it's clear that he feels little fidelity with the shot-by-shot pacing, description and general dramatization of legendary screenwriter Julius Epstein's attempt at this particular sequence. Indeed, far from struggling with what Epstein--in a script at one time known as "Sergeant Steiner"--wrote, Peckinpah both discards it and takes the most important elements of it and endeavors to create something wildly more ambitious than the writer initially conceived of.  Peckinpah keeps the moral (and in many ways the most important) conflict at center stage while simultaneously(Christ knows how) developing an arresting, visually brilliant and strikingly poignant action sequence out of the tragic circumstances of this particular battle. Trust me when I say that, regardless of any knowledge of the film you may have, you will find this one of the truly most emotional, tragic and moral battle sequences ever created. And it's edited like a motherfucker.

Click here and go to pages 99/100 of the original "Sergeant Steiner" script  to read the two page version of the scene in which a very self-serviing German commander, in search of the all-important military award known as the "Cross Of Iron" decides to fire upon his own men (I simply don't have the energy to explain the plot in any more detail...but one of the great triumphs of Peckinpah's sequence is that you kind of don't need to know much of the plot...he gives it up in his own inimitably organized yet still whacked version of events).

Question: how drunk could Peckinpah truly have been to pull of a scene of this exquisite mastery this late in his career? Was a lot of it an act? Or was he the kind of artist who does his best work just as the fall has begun--assuming that there's nothing left to prove and nobody important enough to not make an enemy of?

The hell with it. Dig one of the greatest battle scenes ever filmed. And let's all learn what a really great director actually does.

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