Twitter Plot Summary: On the Russian front in 1943, a platoon of German soldiers have to contend with a captain seeking the Iron Cross.
Five Point Summary:
1. Blood spurts look best when seen in slow motion.
2. Never trust a Prussian officer, especially when played by Maximilian Schell.
3. Apparently if you keep Russian women prisoner, you don’t bother actually guarding them.
4. Hospital visits are always rife with hallucinations.
5. The very definition of friendly fire.
Sam Peckinpah’s only war film, Cross of Iron takes place on the Russian front in 1943. The German army is despondent and certain that Germany losing the war is now inevitable following their defeat at Stalingrad. Yet still they soldier on, no pun intended. Okay, maybe a little. This is emphasised by the opening credits, summing up the German war effort thus far – from initial Blitzkrieg victory to the tide slowly being turned – all set to the heartwarming tune of young German girls singing a folksy tune. On the front line we encounter James Mason, playing Oberst Brandt, who makes barely any attempt at a German accent, a dysentery-ridden Hauptmann Kiesel (David Warner) wishing for a respite from the war and his loose bowels, and Sgt Rolf Steiner, a grizzled James Coburn, who leads a ragtag group of loyal soldiers on a number of successful missions to kill Russians. Their war, both of the global and personal variety, is interrupted by the arrival of Maximilian Schell’s Captain Stransky, an opportunistic and slightly arrogant Prussian officer who requested a transfer to the front line in order to acquire the Iron Cross, despite having little in the ways of first hand experience of combat.
You’ll likely lose count of the amount of times a soldier is seen being blown up or shot in slow motion – it’s almost as if watching watching a proto-Zack Snyder at work. This is all fluff compared to the main story at play, however. That of Sergeant Steiner, the type of man who represents the last hope of the German army, all the while staring defeat in the face. There is instant dislike between Stransky and Steiner for the simple reason that they are from different aspects of the German social spectrum. Stransky on the whole is manipulative and deceitful, doing everything in his power to get what he wants. Steiner meanwhile is loyal to his men, and they are loyal to him. You’d be hard pressed to find anybody loyal to Stransky – they’re more likely to be blackmail victims rather than have any sense of loyalty to the man.
The futility of war is clear to anyone who watches Cross of Iron. Men scream in pain at regular intervals, soldiers are killed in gory slow motion, and the less said about the sequence involving the captive female Russians, the better. It’s just a shame that it feels so disjointed, which is likely due to Peckinpah’s own heavy drinking during the course of the film. In many respects we’re lucky it makes any sense at all when you take this into consideration. The sequence in the middle of the film involving a lengthy stay in a hospital and the numerous hallucinations that follow is perhaps the weakest section, but again it comes back to that futility of war motif and represents the mental effects war has on those involved in it. It might not be perfect, but Cross of Iron does at least get the feeling of desperation and the literal filthiness of war spot on, and the rivalry between Stransky and Steiner is reason enough to enjoy it.