Cross of Iron (1977)

July 1st, 2023
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: Sam Peckinpah | US War Drama, 132′

How many English language films, realised by an American director, portray German combatants in trenches and dugouts during the first and Second World War? At first four films spring to mind depicting the German army at the end of the two wars. For the First World War there is All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). For the Second World War we have The Young Lions (1958); Cross of Iron (1977) and Inglorious Besterds (2009.) Yet there are really only two films that deal with the practicalities of German combatant warfare, solely from the viewpoint of approaching defeat, and remaining resolutely determined in their anti- war stance. They are All Quiet on the Western Front (the 1980 remake could be included but that poor film is negligible) and Cross of Iron. The other films I’ve mentioned, that potentially stand alongside the German-centred The Eagle Has Landed (1976) or Where Eagles Dare (1968), may show German soldiers over-heroically or ineptly fighting, but don’t attempt to describe the day to day life of an army trying grimly to survive. 

Cross of Iron deals with a German platoon involved in the 1943 retreat from the Russian front. The ordinary soldiers and officer class are equally disillusioned and realise they have probably lost the war. An aristocratic Prussian officer Captain von Stransky (Maximillian Schell) arrives as the new commander of the platoon. The regimental commander Colonel Brandt (James Mason) and his adjutant Captain Kiesel (David Warner) express surprise that Stransky deliberately applied for transfer to the Eastern front, as he had a greater chance of winning the Iron Cross from this standpoint. What he fails to mention is his lack of loyalty to the Nazi state, a medal will serve as a symbol of pride for his family. The arrogant Stransky immediately clashes with Corporal Steiner (James Coburn) who disrespects officers and appears to conduct his own form of anarchic warfare. The conflict between the ambitions of Stransky and the cynicism of Steiner takes centre stage.

This was the only war film made by Peckinpah but he directs with the aplomb of a war veteran. Cross of Iron contains some of the best staged minor battles in any WW2 film. The sound design captures explosions and gunfire with an intensity not fully developed until Speilberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) which is a precursor, sound-bombardment wise, to Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017). Yet because Cross of Iron is not aiming to be an immersive experience (As Ryan and Dunkirk often are) an argument for realism can be credited to it more than the other films. Peckinpah has an instinctive feel for the relentless bombardment of war – true, you could argue that his slow motion killing effects (apropos The Wild Bunch) has a stylising effect on proceedings, somehow Peckinpah manages successfully to integrate these slow-mo sequences and the noisy hell of battle into a plausible and intelligently written storyline. 

Ultimately, the all too human clash of class conflict, military authority, ambition and personal freedom is what makes Cross of Iron so engrossing. As in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) the film attempts to be analytical about a military power structure and the questioning of motivations and needs. Stransky wants his cross, Brandt wants to maintain a semblance of order, and Steiner seems to escape into his own bitter anti-authoritarian war game.

“Do you know how much I hate this uniform and everything it stands for? 

“I believe God is a sadist but probably doesn’t know it.”

“What will we do when we lose the war? Prepare for the next one.”

All these utterances are from Corporal Steiner, who rejects his promotion to Sergeant when in arrives, continuing to act as a partly shell-shocked outsider. James Coburn is very good and very watchable in this part but sometimes appears to  respond like an outlaw or renegade in a Western, rather than a war film. Is he fighting a private war against the Nazi war machine (that he’s part of) or merely being self- destructive? Arguably a bit of both. Cross of Iron depicts Steiner hallucinating about a Russia boy soldier whom he saves and sets free, only for him to be mistakenly shot by the Russian army. The splits in Steiner are only an exaggeration of conflicts to be found muted in Brandt and sadistically expressed by Stransky who would lie, cheat, blackmail – he discovers two gay soldiers in his platoon – and have men killed in order to get his iron cross.

Cross of Iron has strong performances from not only Coburn but Maximillian Schell (who makes a repellent aristocrat seem sympathetic) and James Mason (the General’s hurt and shock at Steiner’s disrespectful behaviour is superbly conveyed.) I’ve mentioned the soundstage but the editing by Michael Lewis and Tony Lawson is terrific whilst John Coquillon’s photography has a dusty war-weary beauty. There are weak episodes: Steiner’s convalescing and subsequent brief relationship with a nurse (Senta Berger) at the hospital fails to convince and feels all a bit hurried and undeveloped. The sequence when the platoon captures an all-female Russian detachment certainly raises a familiar accusation made about Peckinpah’s films that he’s a misogynist. And powerful though Coburn’s performance is, his character has an untrammelled and violent energy that feels too much at odds with the film. But perhaps I am wrong here. Steiner is certainly not a despicable Rambo action man. Steiner’s character is much more reflective and intelligent. Not a brute, but a crazed, even philosophic force?

All Quiet on the Western Front ends with that unforgettable shot of a German soldier reaching out for a butterfly, just beyond his trench, only to be shot down by an enemy sniper. There is no such poetic ending for Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron. In fact, it doesn’t quite appear to have an ending,  more an abrupt, though perfectly satisfying, anti-conclusion; the film’s producers ran out of money and had to halt filming prematurely, but this proves an aesthetic bonus. For at its ‘end’ the bitter laughter of James Coburn is heard off-screen, scornfully indicating that this hellish defeat of the German army will be a recurrent bad dream. It would be a shame to disclose the finale. Let’s just say that Cross of Iron’s final bleak sense of a death-trap has none of the tragic ‘release’ of the young soldier’s death in All Quiet on the Western Front. 

 “Don’t rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.”

Those lines from Bertolt Brecht’s play about Hitler, The Resistible Rise of Aturo Ui appear in the end of the film’s titles sequence. However a line before that has been cut out, “This was the thing that nearly had us mastered”. I wonder if Peckinpah dropped that line because it was another reference to Hitler, and by losing such specificity he wanted to generalise more about men in war fighting on madly and uncontrollably, to erase the ‘heat’ of their own private all consuming war? Certainly in the figure of James Coburn as Sergeant Rolf Steiner he looks, at the ‘end’ of Cross of Iron as if he has lost, along with the war, the plot (his sanity) and can only self-destructively fight on.

Cross of Iron reminded me of a Brechtian experience at London’s Riverside Studies in the 1980s while watching “The Berliner Theatre Ensemble” reciting Brecht’s poetry, in German, on stage. I had an English language translation sheet in my hand but what gave me most pleasure that evening was listening to the harsh, rasping sound of an East-German dialect. The sounds of that all male ‘chorus’ had an unforgettable and meaningful sting of anger, compassion and political concern. This memory resonated with the considerable sting of Peckinpah’s remarkable film. Alan Price


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