This week’s pick is legendary filmmaker and pioneer of balletic death scenes Sam Peckinpah’s 1977 production of Cross of Iron. The film stars James Coburn (in one of his finest performances, and as one of Peckinpah’s go-to-actors) as Sgt. Rolf Steiner, a tough German soldier stationed on the Eastern Front in 1943 as the German army was being pushed back by the advancing Soviets.
Steiner is in command of a small squad who are attached to the main German column who are retreating from the Taman peninsula on the Black Sea coast following the German defeat at Stalingrad (one year earlier), which turned the tide of the war in the east. The story is that of conflict between Steiner and a new company commander Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell), a Prussian aristocrat who covets the famed Iron Cross which is one of the highest awards given to a German soldier.
Cross of Iron was Peckinpah’s only war film that shows the audience the kind of war that was being fought on the Eastern Front, and that it was the last place a German soldier wanted to go. Steiner (Coburn) is tired of war and has very little respect for those in charge. When Stransky reports to his new commander, Colonel Brandt (played by veteran British actor James Mason), he tells the Colonel that he applied for a transfer from occupied France to the Eastern Front in order to win the Iron Cross.
The Colonel’s adjutant, Captain Kiesel (the great character actor David Warner) who is also sick of war and military politics, scoffs at Stransky and his naive outlook. Steiner is introduced to Stransky who is told of his exploits. Stransky promotes Steiner to Staff Sgt. in order to curry favor. Steiner shows overt contempt and little appreciation for Stransky as a German officer. To Steiner, Stransky is the real enemy with false notions of heroism and bravery.
The film is an elaborate plot of deceit and betrayal with Steiner and Stransky battling one another rather than their true enemy. The film has all the signature Peckinpah themes such as the powerful use of music in scenes like the opening credits, and when the Soviets launch their massive counter attack on the German lines. But the key element in the film is the slow motion death scenes that were first pioneered with Peckinpah’s highly successful western shoot ’em up, The Wild Bunch (1968) which solidified his place among Hollywood’s most maverick directors.
What I have always noticed and appreciated about the film is that Peckinpah shows a different side to the Germans which was never seen before. He is far from sympathetic to their cause, but they are depicted not as the typical die hard Nazi party members shouting “Sieg Heil”, but are men fighting for one another in a savage landscape of death and destruction. Stransky is the only one in the film who would die for the fatherland and do whatever to obtain the Iron Cross.
In one scene, Steiner removes the Iron Cross from his field jacket and holds it in front of Stransky while the two sit in a trench bunker. Steiner asks Stransky why he wants the Iron Cross so badly. “It’s just a piece of worthless metal.” Stransky looks with envious eyes and replies “It’s not to me.” In that one scene, Steiner realizes that Stransky possess nothing that makes him worthy of being an officer. He’s nothing more than just a glory seeker who is about to find out that war and medals aren’t glamorous things to covet.
My favorite scene is towards the end of the film, where Steiner and Stransky fight alongside one another as the Soviets are attacking. Steiner is eager to see just how inept Stransky truly is. Stransky prepares himself for battle and says to Steiner “I’ll show you how a Prussian officer can fight.” Steiner delivers the best line of the whole film and says “And I will show you where the Iron Crosses grow”, signaling that this is Stransky’s moment for glory.
Before he even meets the enemy, Stransky empties the entire magazine of his MP40 sub-machine gun and has no idea how to reload a new magazine. He pitifully begs for Steiner’s assistance, while Steiner berates and then laughs hysterically at Stransky who puts his helmet on back-to-front. The film then fades to the end credits (with Steiner still laughing) and shows civilian victims and the effects of the war on the Eastern Front.
Cross of Iron is one of very few war films which has a wide collection of authentic props and equipment. Many of the Soviet T-34 tanks were furnished by the Yugoslav army during production.
During production (according to Coburn’s memoirs on set), The Yugoslav government promised that all the vehicles and equipment would be ready on time, but only half were available. Peckinpah and his crew were halted until other materials could be brought in and then filming could commence.
Cross of Iron was hailed by many critics who praised Peckinpah for his unique style and brilliance as a film maker, while others wrote it off as just another violent exploitation film of the 1970s. Peckinpah was a true genius who knew where to set up his cameras, and always got the shot he was looking for. Cross of Iron was one of his very last films and a testament to his directorial capacities before his unfortunate death after completion of the spy thriller The Osterman Weekend (1983).
Cross of Iron is available on DVD through Hen’s Tooth Home Video & Netflix.