The Movie Waffler Re-Release Review - CROSS OF IRON | The Movie Waffler

Re-Release Review - CROSS OF IRON

Cross of Iron review
On the Russian front of 1943, a German soldier is betrayed and left for dead by his commanding officer.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Sam Peckinpah

Starring: James Coburn, Maximilian Schell, James Mason, David Warner, Senta Berger

Cross of Iron bluray

"If we ignore a problem it will hopefully go away" is the unofficial motto of Northern Europe. It's an attitude the German film industry took to depicting the Second World War through most of the decades since that conflict. While many Italian filmmakers interrogated their country's slide into fascism, their German counterparts were either unwilling to do so or perhaps more likely, were hamstrung by the rules Germany implemented regarding depictions of Nazism in a classic case of sweeping an issue under the carpet. The German public clearly had an appetite for seeing their darkest hour portrayed on screen however, as when Sam Peckinpah's Cross of Iron was released in the country in 1977 it became the German box office's biggest hit since The Sound of Music.

Co-financed by German producers, Peckinpah found himself restricted in what he could depict on screen. There are no visible swastikas to be found in the film, and Hitler is never mentioned by name, only referred to as "the bastard" in the Bertolt Brecht quote that closes out the film. Indeed, there are no references to Nazism whatsoever, despite the movie's protagonists being members of the German army, fighting on the Russian Front. Yet these restrictions only serve to enhance the central theme of Peckinpah's film, which was adapted from Willi Heinrich's novel 'The Willing Flesh'. It could be argued that none of the German men featured here are Nazis, that they have other motives for fighting. Some are in it for the glory. Others are just trying to survive.

Cross of Iron review

The former group is represented by Stransky (Maximilian Schell), a cowardly officer of aristocratic Prussian stock who feels entitled to earn an Iron Cross without having to risk his life for it, and Brandt (James Mason), an aging officer who is clearly on the frontlines because war is in his blood and he probably views this conflict as a chance to correct the mistakes of World War One. There's no indication that either men share the philosophy of their Nazi superiors. They're simply opportunists.

The survivors are led by the working class Corporal Steiner (James Coburn), who has no interest in earning medals. He doesn't seem to believe in much of anything but he hates the men who give him orders, not because he disagrees with their politics but because he simply hates authority. You get the impression Steiner would make an enemy of a shop floor supervisor if he was working in a Munich car plant. He does care about the survival of his men, and even of Russian soldiers, if they happen to be women and children, which they often are here. Early on he adopts a captured Russian soldier who is no more than 12 years old into his platoon, but his charity ends in tragedy, one of the grimmer notes in a movie filled with reminders that war cares not for gestures of humanity.

Cross of Iron review

Steiner makes an enemy of Stransky when he refuses to lie about the latter's cowardice during an assault by Russian soldiers. This leads to Stransky getting revenge by leaving Steiner and his men trapped behind enemy lines, with most of the film's second half detailing their attempts to return to the (relative) safety of their own position. This portion of the film plays like Come and See from the German perspective, with Steiner witnessing horrors, some of which are committed by the very men he set out to protect. His moral code leads him to turn on his own men at points, including feeding a castrated soldier to a group of female Russian soldiers eager to avenge the death of one of their sisters.

Cross of Iron has much in common with the prison movie genre. Steiner and his conscripted men are essentially inmates of an open air prison, keeping their heads down and hoping they get to return home some day. Stransky and Brandt occupy the classic prison movie roles of the respectively sadistic and sympathetic wardens. There's even a nod to homosexual relationships developing in this world without women, represented by an officer who is blackmailed to take Stransky's side out of fear of being exposed. Using homophobia as a villainous characteristic was quite forward thinking for 1977.

Cross of Iron review

As you would expect from Peckinpah, the film's action scenes are intense and as memorable as any he created during his career. Peckinpah captures the mayhem of the Russian Front, along with the apathy towards death, with bodies falling mere metres from unperturbed men holding conversations. At the time of its release some critics complained that it was difficult to tell who was shooting at whom in the battle scenes. But that's the point. It doesn't matter. This isn't a simplistic white hats vs black hats movie. Peckinpah symbolises this through uniforms. When the young Russian soldier is captured he's given a German coat to keep warm, but it's ironically when he removes it that he's killed by friendly fire from his own side. The movie's grim climax sees Steiner's men clad in the uniforms of their enemy, becoming fair targets for the officers who want rid of them. "Take off one uniform and there's always another one underneath," Steiner intones at one point. Or as Brandt puts it when asked what he'll do when Germany loses the war, "Prepare for the next one."

Cross of Iron
 is on UK DVD, bluray, 4k UHD and VOD from July 31st.