…Peckinpah successfully stripped the combat of the patriotic heroism and glory that usually accrue to it in war films (Stephen Prince quoted in Under Fire p. 52)
Sam Peckinpah´s only war movie, Cross of Iron, is a UK/German co-production and probably one of the best war movies you can possibly see. It is based loosely on the battle of Krymskaya that took place during the German retreat in 1943. The original source is Willi Heinrich´s Das geduldige Fleisch aka The Willing Flesh. Heinrich fought himself on the Eastern Front. It contains quite a lot of graphic infantry combat scenes. Steiner is one of my top favourite characters, right after Sgt. Elias, however much more cynical but a good man at heart. I have read reviews of this movie that were not favourable and I admit, it could be misunderstood. If you do not pay very close attention and take into account the opening and final credits, you might simply not see the profundity of the anti-war statement.
Cross of Iron opens on a cheerful children´s tune Hänschen Klein ging allein, in die weite Welt hinein, Stock und Hut, stehn ihm gut… While we hear this tune we see black and white footage of grim content interspersed with pictures and stills of Hitler Youth to show us the slow ideological infiltration of the German youth.
The movie tells us a story from the point of view of a German platoon on the Eastern Front in 1943. At the heart of the story is the antagonism between Sgt. Steiner (James Coburn) a much admired veteran who has already earned two Crosses of Iron and Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell) an arrogant, conceited Prussian officer whose only goal is to be awarded such a cross. When tensions intensify Stransky does not inform Steiner and his platoon of their retreat and the men are left stranded behind enemy lines. They barely make it back and Stransky let´s his men open fire on them. We get to see a scene that resembles many a Western showdown.
The final credits are quite different from the opening ones. The statement clearly is: war is pure madness. We hear a hysterically laughing Steiner, the annoying children´s song of the beginning and see black and white photos. Those photos are interesting, the first shows the execution of young Soviet partisans (see more info in B Hellqvists comment below) followed by the pictures of children in different wars, Vietnam, somewhere in Africa…
This movie wouldn’t be the controversial movie it is if there were not other extremely important elements that have not so much to do with the core story. Steiner has an affair with a nurse (Senta Berger) after being wounded. This scene, that has been criticized, is meant to emphasize his cynicism and, I believe, should be seen paired with the other female roles in this movie, namely the female Russian soldiers Steiner´s troop encounters on the retreat. It is rare that you see female soldiers in war movies unless they are Russian. Running out of men and considering women – due to their assumed patience – to be better snipers Russia recruited a lot of women towards the end of the war. There are a few Russian movies dedicated solely to female soldiers (I will review them in due time). But let’s get back to Cross of Iron. The encounter of those female soldiers and Steiner´s men gives us one of the most graphic scenes I have ever seen in a war movie. Not for the fainthearted.
All in all, apart from the central story of hatred between two men from different social classes, the movie is complex and composite. It certainly gains by being watched twice. The actors are all very good. James Coburn is fantastic. Maximilian Schell is very good and so are James Mason, David Warner and Senta Berger.
What I liked a lot is how daring Cross of Iron is. It does not shy away from touching topics that are normally left out, it goes beyond what we are used to see and stays in your mind long after you watched it.
I must admit that personally and for reasons that elude me, I was always extremely fascinated by the tales of the Eastern front. This dates back to my childhood when I found a book in my grandmother´s library called “Letters home from Stalingrad” (it is as good as Letters home from Vietnam and not less tragic). Thinking that without the British and the Americans the outcome of the war between these two countries would have determined all of Europe´s fate gives me the creeps…
“What will we do when we have lost the war?”
“Prepare for the next one.” (Cross of Iron)
Cross of Iron is among my Top 20, that is for sure.