Cross of Iron is one of those rare things in a Hollywood film, a WW2 story from the side of the German army. There are many historical reasons why this is the case, not least the crimes of national socialism and the holocaust, however Peckinpah manages to side step this by focusing on the lives of the average German soldier on the Eastern front. These enlisted men have nothing but scorn for Hitler, the party and their officers.
It is 1943 and the German campaign in Russia is rapidly beginning to reach its nadir. We are introduced to the hard bitten Sergeant Steiner, played with grim determination by an excellent James Coburn. Steiner is a decorated hero and winner of the Iron Cross who is beloved by his men. While he is difficult and often insubordinate, he is tolerated by his superiors Colonel Brandt, a weary James Mason and the resigned (to defeat if not death) Captain Kiesel, played with a rakish charm by David Warner. Into this steps the patrician form of Captain Stransky, a wonderfully malicious Maximilian Schell. Stransky is an officer of the Prussian aristocracy and has arranged his transfer to the front in order to obtain an Iron Cross. His brusque and often brutal leadership immediately puts him into conflict with Steiner. After Steiner and his men lead a bloody and victorious counterattack against the oncoming Russian forces, the cowardly Stransky who had hidden from battle, attempts to claim credit for the assault. He requires two men to corroborate, one he obtains by blackmailing a closeted homosexual and for the other he enlists Steiner. Steiner refuses to corroborate his tale even when urged by Colonel Brandt with the knowledge that it will rid them of Stransky. An enraged Stransky enacts a brutal revenge however. As the Russian army threatens to overrun their position he fails to pass on the order to retreat to Steiner and his men, leaving them trapped behind enemy lines with the only option of fighting their way out.
Filmed in Yugoslavia behind the then iron curtain, Peckinpah’s film has a real veneer of authenticity to it. War is brutal and the stark conditions of the front lines are continuously exposed to the viewer. In James Coburn’s Steiner, we are presented with an almost legendary example of soldiery. He is abrasive yet fair and not open to the kind of corruption which Stransky wallows in. Throughout the film Steiner defies death to lead his men to safety. It is a bravura performance form Coburn. Yet Schell deserves equal plaudits for his portrayal of the slimy but driven Stransky. He is the kind of patrician who looks down on all other men yet has a grudging respect for the abilities of Steiner who has achieved the one thing he could not, the iron cross. This leads him to dishonour himself in an attempt to enact revenge on Steiner, something he would not need to stoop to for other lesser men.
Like much of Peckinpah’s work, this contains sexual politics which can seem out of touch with modern times. At one point Steiner and his men come across a farmhouse full of female Soviet soldiers with consequences that can be expected. Now I’m aware the Russian had a lot of female participation, certainly far more than the other Allies, and a lot of it was concentrated at the front lines but the scene as it plays out feels bizarre at such a remove.
Even upon release the ending of the film stood out for its abrupt nature and over the years a legend has grown up that the production ran out of money and was forced to throw together an ending on the last day of shooting that wasn't to Peckinpah’s liking. While the ending was not as outlined in the original script, it was something that Peckinpah had Coburn improvise on the day. Regardless, it doesn't detract from the film and contains one of the best lines in the film:
“Then I will show you where the Iron Crosses grow”
The film’s production is almost as legendary as its story. It was financed by a West-German pornography producer and filmed in Yugoslavia using mainly extras from the local army. Peckinpah was at this stage of his career a full blown alcoholic with reports that he drank four bottles of whiskey or vodka during every day of filming, sleeping only 2 to 4 hours a night as he struggled to complete his only WW2 film.
Overall, this is a film which just has to be seen. It is brutal and epic in a way that few films are these days. It showcases a director at his best and a fine cast of actors giving career best performances. Is it of its time? Absolutely but it doesn't detract from what is a great story.