3.5 stars out of 4
Cross of Iron is the WWII war film that gladly takes the WWII out of the mind and reintroduces the true horrors of man. We spend our entire time with the German army, and not once do we ever think of them as anything other than men caught in a terrible fate. Not once do we think of the Fuhrer and the dark oppression of Germany. Like All Quiet on the Western Front before it, this is a tale of flawed human beings caught in a thing bigger than them that was created by sheer stupidity by people they have nothing to do with. Unlike anything else, Cross of Iron is also dissonant.
Sam Peckinpah makes a war film. Sounds like a match made in heaven. And it was, especially since this was Sam’s last good film. Interestingly, there are little of Sam’s trademark cinematic techniques, and instead there is a deep attention to historical detail and crafting a universe of warfare. This further allows us to believe the events we are seeing and fall in with the troops, much as in Major Dundee (1965).
The film is very low-key, but never really betrays its low budget. The reason that this works is due to the intensity of the performances and the sharp focus on only a few men of the German army. This is never about war or politics, but about men trying to stay sane in the midst of absolute chaos.
We focus on a German platoon on the Eastern front of Russia in 1943. Commanding these men is Corporal Steiner (James Coburn), the kind of individual soldier who captures a small Russian boy as a prisoner does not follow his orders to kill any Russian, but keeps the boy hidden as a fellow being amongst his squad. Steiner’s immediate superiors (James Mason, David Warner) understand the way the war is being fought and the way the German army must endure the bombardment.
Unfortunately the same does not go for the newest addition to the German officers, Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell). Stransky has moved from occupied France to the Eastern front entirely for one purpose: to win the Iron Cross. This immediately puts him at odds with the rest of the men, who know the true worthlessness of the stupid piece of metal. Stransky immediately butts heads with Steiner who is immoveable to his Prussian high-mindedness.
In an attack, Steiner and his men bravely defend their position whilst Stransky struggles to even remain standing. Steiner is wounded by a mortar shell and wakes in hospital with a head wound. He sees visions of the dead and gone and convalesces with a nurse…until leaving ahead of schedule and going back to the front. The nurse asks him why he goes, but Steiner cannot answer. The war has consumed him.
Steiner returns to find that Stransky is claiming the defense was all his responsibility in a cheap attempt to gain the Iron Cross. Stransky has named Steiner and another as witness. (He blackmails the other man’s homosexuality, and promises Steiner will be looked after after the war.) Steiner retreats to think about his answer. Meanwhile the army decides to move out and Stransky does not relay the order to Steiner’s men. Thus, the army pulls out and Steiner’s platoon is abandoned to the masses of oncoming enemy Russians.
You think they’re dead. They think they’re dead. Yet Steiner pushes his men across impossible odds and they actually escape the enemy and reach the woodland. Then begins a long journey back to their comrades through enemy lines. Along the way they encounter a group of Russian women and are repulsed when the women refuse to fully submit to their guns and thus kill two of their team.
Steiner’s platoon makes it back to the German lines and are gunned down by the duplicitous Lieutenant who was blackmailed by Stransky. Steiner and one other survive the machine gun onslaught, and Steiner dispatches the Lt. He finds Stransky and then refuses to just shoot him. He gives Stransky a gun and challenges him to go onto the battlefield. Then while being shot at, Stransky cannot reload his gun.
The ending is where I find the most fault with the film. It makes sense but is completely unnecessary and does not fit with the film’s natural progression in any way. It feels forced and jarring and does not sit well with the end credits. Ultimately, the major theme of there being no reason to any of the madness is underlined because the film itself has no real defined meaning! This completely scraps any and all possibility of an overarching point and the film could have simply ended fifteen minutes before with a single mortar shell.
Cross of Iron is a well-made little war film that feels and is of it’s time. Aside form a few moments there is little of the Peckinpah touch we have come to know and the end result is rather impersonal. The ending leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
EDITIONS: For years, we have put up with terrible, lousy pan and scanned transfers of this movie. We have become used to it being cropped horribly, interlaced and very contrasty. Chock every other release out the window because the new Region B Optimum Blu-ray is simply put, the best this film could look in the home. Clean, sharp, colorful: the 1080p image is nothing short of stunning. Audio is at a simple 2.0 PCM (as it should be!). Extras are plentiful, but the main draw is the feature being presented in a very good straight transfer with no tinkering and little frills. A great transfer in every way.
DVDBeaver comparison: http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/dvdcompare5/crossofiron.htm