Starring: James Coburn, Maximilian Schell, David Warner, James Mason
In 1943, in the Russian front, the decorated leader Rolf Steiner is promoted to Sergeant after another successful mission. Meanwhile the upper-class and arrogant Prussian Captain Hauptmann Stransky is assigned as the new commander of his squad. After a bloody battle of Steiner's squad against the Russian troops led by the brave Lieutenant Meyer that dies in the combat, the coward Stransky claims that he led his squad against the Russian and requests to be awarded with the Iron of Cross to satisfy his personal ambition together with his aristocratic family. Stransky gives the names of Steiner and of the homosexual Lieutenant Triebig as witnesses of his accomplishment, but Steiner, who has problems with the chain of command in the army and with the arrogance of Stransky, refuses to participate in the fraud. When Colonel Brandt gives the order to leave the position in the front, Stransky does not retransmit the order to Steiner's squad...
Cross of Iron begins in a rather perverse manner. To the tune of "Kinderlied" we see a montage of Nazi propaganda (Hitler at rallies and meeting dignitaries, inspecting the troops etc) which, towards the end of the song, is intercut with images showing the grim reality of life on the Front Line.
As the film begins proper, we are introduced to Steiner and his squad as they stealthily take out a Russian mortar position. Peckinpah gives us a taste of his perfect use of slow motion – often copied, never bettered.
Coburn is the perfect choice for Steiner – his features, like Lee Marvin’s, seem to have been chiselled out of granite and then weathered in. His selfless acts of heroism are diametrically opposed to the nature of Stransky, who jumps at the first sound of mortar fire and always has an excuse ready when ordered into battle.
In contrast is the young Lt Meyer, brave, courageous and well liked by the troops. This can be seen in the lengthy birthday celebrations the men throw him – which of course serves as some serious foreshadowing. When their part of the battlefield is over-run by Russian troops, Meyer leads the counter-attack, forcing panicking soldiers back to their posts and probably saving the day – even though he himself is mortally wounded. The battle scenes are incredible even by today’s high standards. And as the birthday scene showed, the men didn’t lose an officer, they lost one of their own.
James Mason and David Warner also provide excellent value. Their final scene together is full of emotion. Warner’s Capt Kiesel is almost as world weary as Steiner, but has intelligence, something that Mason’s Colonel Brandt is keen to see survive the madness of war and help rebuild Germany – “if such a thing would be allowed to exist”.
Any British kid growing up in the 1980’s will have been familiar with the novels by Sven Hassel, whose tales of a squadron made up of convicts and political undesirables depicted a grim and gory, guts and all atmosphere. I was greatly reminded of those stories when watching Cross of Iron, which at times has a nonchalant way of depicting really depressing scenes, such as a convoy of trucks driving over a dead body, which has been pushed into the mud so deep it hardly causes the trucks to bump. One of the grimmest – and most memorable – scenes comes near the end of the film when Steiner and his men surprise an all-female squad of Russian soldiers. Steiner intends to just take their uniforms and leave them tied up, but unfortunately he can’t watch all his men all the time. When one of his men forces one of the women to give him oral relief, she goes on the offensive and makes him wish he’d kept it in his pants. When Steiner arrives, he looks on with a mix of pity and disgust. And the action he takes...
What is surprising about Cross of Iron is that it doesn’t give you the moment of catharsis you are expecting, instead giving something bizarre, yet fitting. The film finishes mid-battle, as if to say that there is no end in sight, no respite to the killing and destruction.
As if this weren’t enough, anyone sticking around for the end credits are in for an ordeal too, as between title cards are disturbing photographs. In particular, it keeps returning to one photo of a Nazi officer laughing as he prepares to hang a teenage boy, while a young girl has literally just been hanged next to him.
The Optimum Blu Ray of Cross of Iron is as good a way as any to watch this film. The picture is about as good as it’s going to get going by the quality of the original film stock. Of the extras, the stand-out for me are a couple of commercials James Coburn shot in Japan whilst on a promotional tour for the film.
A great pairing of Coburn and Peckinpah and one of the most harrowing war movies ever made.
8 out of 10 (MikeOutWest)
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