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.