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CROSS OF IRON (director: Sam Peckinpah; screenwriters: from the novel by Willi Heinrich/Julius J. Epstein/Walter Kelley/James Hamilton; cinematographer: John Coquillon; editors: Tony Lawson/Herbert Taschner/Murray Jordan; music: Ernest Gold; cast: James Coburn (Sergeant Steiner), Maximilian Schell (Captain Stransky), James Mason (Colonel Brandt), David Warner (Captain Kiesel), Klaus Löwitsch (Kruger), Arthur Brauss (Zoli), Senta Berger (Sister Eva), Roger Fritz (Leutnant Triebig), Michael Nowka (Dietz); Runtime: 133; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Wolf C. Hartwig/Alex Winitsky; Avco Embassy Pictures; 1977-UK/West Germany)
“Goes to extremes to paint a picture of war as insane.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

If you like Sam Peckinpah (“Straw Dogs”/”Major Dundee”/”Ride the High Country”)for his ability to shoot action pictures and not hold back on the violence, this one fits nicely into his oeuvre.It’s an unpleasant, grim and ugly combat tale, that goes to extremes to paint a picture of war as insane. It’s based on the noted novel byGerman author Willi Heinrich, and is Peckinpah’s only film that takes the POV of the German soldier, and is the first of many war films he directed. It’s set on Russia’s Eastern front in 1943, as the German Wehrmacht are being routed while in retreat from the Soviet army.

It has great production value, the action scenes are terrific and everything technical is first-class, but the acting is stiff and the dialogue pretentious. It looks like a conventional war drama, but it’s sharply bitter take on the universality of war and its alarming message of corrupt officers fighting a corrupt war, ala Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (57), makes it a more demanding watch than the usual unintelligent Hollywood blockbuster action war drama. It points to the loss of a moral compass during war, its brutality and how the innocent are compromised. The low-budget film ran out of money before finishing, which slowed things down but did not ruin the pic.

It features a troubled brave German corporal named Steiner (James Coburn ), soon to be promoted to sergeant, who hates the Nazis and is no longer a believer in the war but will do anything to lead his tight-knit platoon of war-weary soldiers except commit atrocities. Steiner‘s rival is his new platoon commander, the film’s heavy. Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell) is a smug wealthy Prussian aristocrat and Nazi enthusiast, who yearns to win the Iron Cross (Germany’s highest honor for bravery). The problem is that he’s a coward and refuses to go out to the battlefield, but has no trouble ordering his platoon to fight. When Stransky’s platoon goes on a counterattack after their compound is attacked, Stransky cowers in the bunker. But he writes up in the report that he led the counterattack, which will get him an Iron Cross. When Steiner refuses to confirm that to the colonel, the evil Stransky fearing he will be exposed as a coward schemes to eliminate the platoon by leaving them stranded in the field of attacking Russians.

Steiner has already won the Iron Cross, and his nobleman German commander, Colonel Brandt(James Mason), though he believes the war is lost now believes that one must save the brave soldiers to return to civilian life and build a new Germany. The colonel’s favorite officer, Captain Kiesel (David Warner), answers his call for a rebuilt Germany by saying in a mocking tone we must “Prepare for the next one.” There’s also a quote from Brecht: “Do not rejoice in his defeat you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.”

The American version was cut to a 119 minutes, but it was restored in the VHS version I saw. It was shot in Yugoslavia.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”