BACK-STORY: “Cross of Iron” is a war movie set on the Eastern Front in World War II. It is told from a German point of view. The action takes place in the Taman Peninsula in the Caucasus in 1943. The Germans are in the midst of their retreat from Stalingrad. The film was Sam Peckinpah’s last great feature and his only war movie. He supposedly was heavily drinking during the shoot. The movie is based on the novel The Willing Flesh by Willi Heinrich. The movie follows the book fairly closely. The movie was filmed on location in Yugoslavia with the cooperation of the Yugoslavian army. Because the production ran out of money, the ending had to be improvised. The release met with mixed reviews and it did not do well at the box office. It’s reputation has been rising over the years, however.
OPENING: The opening credits roll over German war footage with a German children’s song in the background. Corporal Steiner (James Coburn) and his squad sneak up on a Russian mortar post and kill their opponents in the slow motion typical of a Peckinpah film. They capture a Russian boy and bring him back.
SUMMARY: Capt. Stransky (Maximilian Schell) arrives to take command of the battalion and meets with Gen. Brandt (James Mason) and Capt. Kiesel (David Warner). Stransky is an aristocratic Prussian who has requested a transfer from France specifically so he can win an Iron Cross. Brandt is disillusioned and points out that the German soldier is simply fighting for his life, not for medals. They recommend Stransky make use of Steiner. The cynical, embittered Keisel says “Steiner is a myth. Men like him are our last hope and in that sense he is truly a dangerous man.”
|Stransky, Meyer, and Steiner|
The attack is a major one with frantic battle action. There are more slow motion deaths and lots of explosions. There is hand-to-hand combat and Steiner is wounded. His respected platoon leader Lt. Meyer is killed leading a counterattack. Later, Stransky (who cowered in his bunker during the battle) claims he led the successful counterattack and deserves the Iron Cross.
Steiner ends up in a hospital which results in some surreal scenes as he hallucinates and sees old comrades. He has an affair with a nurse (Senta Berger). In a telling scene, a general arrives with propaganda film crew to show the wonderful treatment of the men, but once the shots are done the banquet is reserved for the visiting officers. When Steiner is recovered enough (in his opinion), he abandons the nurse in favor of a return to his unit (cliché alert).
When Steiner returns to the squad’s bunker, he finds some of his men are dead and they now have a Nazi Party member attached to them. In a great scene, Steiner is called before Brandt to verify Stransky’s leading the counterattack. Stransky has two eyewitnesses – Steiner and a homosexual adjutant named Treibig who he is blackmailing. Brandt suspects Stransky is lying and wants Steiner to confirm his suspicions. Steiner surprises him by asking for more time. Brandt peevishly points out that he has tolerated a lot of insubordination from Steiner, prompting an outburst from Steiner in which he proclaims that he does not care that Brandt is “enlightened”. He hates all officers and, in fact, the whole army.
The Germans are forced to retreat, but Stransky sees an opportunity to silence Steiner by not passing on the order. The Russians move in with tanks. The squad takes refuge in a factory, but a tank simply plows through the wall. They escape through a tunnel. The action is intense.
They are on the run and moving cross country to try to reach German lines. They reach a village and take a unit of Russian female soldiers captive. The Party worm attempts to rape one of the women, but gets his genitalia bitten off and kills her. The scene is unique in that the women are treated sympathetically. When they kill one of the Germans who was distracted, Steiner does not retaliate. They would have done the same, I suppose. Steiner even gives them the Party guy as a parting gift.
They reach the German lines but still have to cross no man’s land. They send a message warning the Germans not to shoot as they are coming in, but Stransky gets his toadie Treibig to open fire on these “Russians” coming through the wire. Several members are killed in graphic, slow motion deaths. Steiner guns down Treibig and goes looking for Stransky.
CLOSING: The Russians choose this moment to launch an attack. Lots of explosions and flying debris. It’s as though Peckinpah added an Indian attack to the showdown scene of a one of his westerns. Steiner tracks down Stransky amidst all the chaos, but decides not to kill him. Instead, they go out together to fight. Steiner has shamed Stransky into earning the Iron Cross. The movie ends with Stransky fumbling with reloading his machine gun and Steiner laughing at him.
Action - 9
Acting - 9
Accuracy - 8
Realism - 8
Plot - 8
Overall – 8
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? This is a very manly movie. It is unlikely your significant other will enjoy it. There is only one significant female character and she is treated like a piece of meat. The movie is very grimy and gritty. It pulls no punches. The scene with the Russian female soldiers is admirably nonsexist, but most women would find it discomforting. Besides, how many women are Sam Peckinpah fans?
ACCURACY: Willi Heinrich was a veteran of the Eastern Front and was wounded five times so he knew of which he wrote. The book is probably partly autobiographical. It is also claimed the book is based on the experiences of the decorated soldier Johannsch Werdfeger who won two Iron Crosses.
The movie does not claim to be a true story. The battles are generic and represent typical battles during the Taman Peninsula campaign. The fighting is realistic in a Hollywood sort of way. Peckinpah does stage chaos well. The sets are appropriately decimated. The deaths appropriately random.
The movie is helped in its realism by the authentic weapons. The Russian tanks are T34/85’s on loan from the Yugoslavian Army. I won’t quibble with the fact that that particular model was not in use in 1943. The small arms are accurate. One flaw is the use of F4U Corsairs to represent Russian fighter-bombers. Gull wings – did they think we would not notice?
The small unit dynamics of the squad, especially in the bunker scenes ring true. The soldier banter is realistic. The comradery is what you expect for a squad that had gone through all they went through. The attitudes of the enlisted and the officers in the German army circa 1943 are well displayed. The cynicism and defeatism is apparent.
CRITIQUE: “Cross of Iron” is a special movie. There is no other war movie quite like it. It has the Peckinpah touch throughout it – the trademark slow motion violence, the iconoclastic anti-hero, the lack of respect for authority. An American war movie concentrating on Germans on the Eastern Front is pretty rare.
The movie is certainly action-packed with lots of explosions. It is a great combat movie and has several combat scenes that are among the best filmed. It does have its exposition parts (which are necessary to develop the conflict between Steiner and Stransky and to explain Brandt’s role in the triangle), but the movie is definitely not wordy.
The movie is an excellent depiction of small unit warfare, but it also gives a taste of command. Brandt is a sympathetic soldiers-general and Keisel represents another type – the cynical staff officer. Stransky is yet another type – the chicken-hearted glory hound. Steiner portrays the hardened NCO who cares more for the survival of his men than the “big picture”. The movie is refreshingly free of the stereotyped evil Nazis. Stransky is not a Nazi – he is an aristocrat who is fighting for his family honor, not Hitler.
The acting is outstanding. Coburn deserved an Academy Award nomination and has one of his best roles. He is perfect as Steiner. He is ably supported by Mason, Warner, and Schell. I especially enjoyed Warner’s cynical Keisel. He is riveting whenever he appears. Schell is appropriately loathsome. The unknown actors who make up the squad also do a good job.
The ending has drawn mixed reviews. I personally did not like it. I found it out of character that after killing Treibig, Steiner does not kill the more despicable Stransky. Why would he suddenly change his mind? Then Stransky in a character-flip does not kill Steiner when he turns his back on him. Either one of these character shifts would be hard to swallow, but both? I did not mind the abrupt halt to the movie.
CONCLUSION: If you want a war movie that is adrenalin-fueled and well-acted, try “Cross of Iron”. It is not subtle, but it is not one-dimensional either. It is definitely underrated at #64. It seems incredible that it is only two places higher than “Castle Keep”! I feel confident it will be in the top fifty of my 100 Best War Movies list. By the way, that is a great movie poster.
COMING UP: I will be reviewing the History Channel special on "Gettysburg" on May 30 at 9 EST.