Cross of Iron aka Steiner – Das eiserne Kreuz (1977) or Showdown on the Eastern Front

…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.


12 thoughts on “Cross of Iron aka Steiner – Das eiserne Kreuz (1977) or Showdown on the Eastern Front

  1. warmoviebuff says:

    Great movie. It is #64 on the Military History list and should be higher. I will be surprised if I don’t find it is superior to many of the older “classics” than are higher ranked. I also read the book which is equally good. I too am fond of the Steiner character, but also loved David Warner in it. I feel it would be more highly thought of if it was an American unit. There are critics who refuse to like movies sympathetic toward the German soldier’s experience.

    • That would actually mean that no war movie taking place on the Eastern Front would be appreciated by Americans? Stalingrad is generally rated very high even though we have the German perspective. I think Cross of Iron can make you uneasy for various reasons. Gary Freitas did not get it. He writes in his review that we have to wait until the last half hour to understand that there is a conflict between two men. Was he sleeping during the beginning? It is outstanding. I think the relationship between Mason and Warner’s characters are interesting too but I had to cut my review somewhere.

      • warmoviebuff says:

        “Stalingrad” is ranked #23 by MH. That is major props. I have a DVD copy, but am refraining from watching it until I get to it on the list. It is very difficult to wait. I can’t wait to compare it to “Enemy at the Gates” and “Cross of Iron”.

      • I start to believe that Stalingrad is my all time favourite. I thought I preferred Black Hawk Down but, no, I think it is Stalingrad. I definitely think it is the best out of the three. It is so unambiguous.

  2. TPC says:

    Good to see you review this, I was reading some war movie reviews over at Amazon concerning another movie ‘cerca 1980’ and the reviewer recommended this movie instead which came out a few years before.

    • It is really good but I think not as widely known as it should be. Maybe also because people think it odd Peckinpah did it. I still think Stalingrad is better, but it is very good and different from many others. Tell me what you think of it, once you have seen it.

  3. B Hellqvist says:

    Just found your blog and enjoying it a lot! However, I found a small error in the review above:

    “Those photos are interesting, the first shows the execution of the Geschwister Scholl of the White Rose followed by the pictures of children in different wars, Vietnam, somewhere in Africa…”

    It is actually the hanging of a couple of young Soviet partisans. Here’s some info on the event:

    The unit responsible for the hanings was the 707th Infantry Division, the German Army unit most implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity. It was used for rear-area fighting against partisans, as well as actions against Jews. The commander, Generalmajor Gustav Freiherr von Mauchenheim, was an ardent Nazi and anti-Semite.

    Sophie Scholl was beheaded by guillotine, BTW.

    Anyway, off to browse more – thanks for making this blog!

  4. Anonymous says:

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  5. Greetings,
    your posts are very good. I am myself very much fascinated by the Eastern front. There is a mystique to it that you cannot explain. Recent studies led by my fascination have revised my outlook towards Germans n the Second World War. I wish we rise our our predefined perceptions constructed by Zionist media and see the war as it was horror on all sides with crimes committed by all sides.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Moshin.
      I know, I feel the same about the Eastern Front. Ever since I’ve read last letters from Stalingrad, written by German soldiers.
      Everyone, on every side committed crimes. Have you watched the German movie Stalingrad? It’s one if my favourites.

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