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Sam Peckinpah's last really successful film is this 1977 European co-production, initiated with insufficient funds and finished (after a premature filming shut-down) with money from EMI. The director had never done a war picture before and achieves a savage desperation in his scenes of hardened German troops trying to hold back overwhelming Soviet forces. The narrative is clear but the dialogue is painfully pretentious - the German officers articulate their inner motivations, while the troops offer philosophical observations about the pointlessness of their sacrifice. That leaves Cross of Iron to stand or fall on the appeal of its gritty battle action, the one aspect where Peckinpah doesn't let us down.
Cross of Iron really boils down to the same story as Robert Aldrich's 1955 Attack!: Non-coms and soldiers fight and die like dogs while cynical officers make plans for their political futures back home. The villain officer tries to insure that the witnesses to his cowardice and scheming are killed in action. Cross of Iron is set in the German army but skips the usual conflict between ordinary soldiers and Nazi fanatics. Maximillian Schell's Stransky is a Prussian honor-bound by his aristocratic family to come back from the front with the Iron Cross. That's almost the same as the collusion between Attack!'s Lee Marvin and Eddie Albert: Both are from Southern military families and are expected to uphold the family name with "heroic" wartime deeds.
The novel setting within the German Army is something of a commercial drawback in the United States. Besides Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front and Douglas Sirk's A Time to Live and A Time to Die, war movies in enemy trenches have been few and far between, and both of those were from pacifist novels by Erich Maria Remarque. With all dialogue in English and British and American actors in the lead roles, Cross of Iron has only some good beer-drinking songs to instill a German flavor. Yugoslav locals play German and Russian troops, and we have to keep checking uniforms to remind ourselves that this is Hitler's army.
Peckinpah succeeds whenever he depicts ordinary soldiers waiting between action, drinking and trying not to lose their minds. But most of the drama is obvious and forced. Steiner's natural fighter is inwardly an ethical man; we can tell that he will be betrayed by his superiors, as was Jack Palance in Attack! Steiner takes responsibility for a Russian boy that the officers want shot, and lets him loose with an embarrassingly pretentious speech. We know the kid will end up riddled with bullets anyway. Stransky doesn't hide his sneeringly selfish intention to win an unearned Iron Cross, and further shows his villainy by threatening two homosexual junior staff officers with death. James Mason's Major Brandt is investigating Stransky's doubtful claim for the medal, and puts Steiner in a bind: Steiner won't lie to help Stransky, but he won't testify against him either. Even though Brandt is sympathetic to Steiner, the hard-bitten sergeant's only response is that he hates all officers.
Steiner's soft side is explored when spends some time with Senta Berger's nurse in a field hospital. As Peckinpah professionals are wont to do, he ignores his medical discharge and returns to the front lines. His reward is treachery from Stransky, who purposely leaves Steiner's unit on point while the rest of the division retreats. After battling their way through Russian-held territory, Steiner's best men make it back to the newly established German front line. Stransky ignores Steiner's correct password and orders his men to shoot.
Cross of Iron's furious battle action is far more convincing than the fighting in Sam Fuller's combat swansong film The Big Red One. As is Peckinpah's style, there is little camera movement but individual shots are impressively staged. His trademark slow motion inter-cuts well in this context -- machine gun shells spit into the air and explosions blast men into the mud. Russian tanks overrun Steiner's squad, giving us a fine sense of their feverish struggle. We're told that Peckinpah got these tense scenes with only two tanks, one of which wasn't operable.
If anything, Peckinpah's Germans are too sensitive. When Steiner's men capture a group of female Russian soldiers, the film elects for exploitative details of isolated rape and mutilation rather than something more believable -- the fear and hatred between these two armies was such that the only credible outcome would seemingly be some kind of atrocity. Or is the script saying that only Nazi officers committed war crimes?
James Coburn is solid as the no-nonsense Steiner but Maximillian Schell and James Mason look like stars that have dropped in for a week's work. Another Peckinpah veteran David Warner has too small of a part to make a lasting impression. Haircuts are mostly whatever the actors felt like wearing. For no fault of their own, all but Schell fail to be convincingly German, and he subdues his accent to match his co-stars. The mock-meaningful tone of some of the dialogue is exemplified when Coburn declines to gun down Schell, and instead invites him to fight like an honest soldier: "Let me show you where the Iron Crosses grow." We hear maniacal laughter as the credits play over an ineffective photo montage of civilian victims of war --- that includes children from Vietnam, Africa and the Middle East.
Hen's Tooth Video's DVD of Cross of Iron is a pleasant surprise. Earlier discs were frankly terrible full-frame transfers. All indications are that this is a full-length cut. At 132 minutes it's a full reel longer than a 119-minute count given in sources for the original American release. The rumored video release said to be upwards of ten minutes longer is more likely than not a myth or a misprint.
The enhanced transfer restores Cross of Iron's proper compositions. The image is sharp and the color strong, and overall the disc looks far better than the weak and greenish AVCO Embassy prints this reviewer saw in 1978. Ernest Gold's music score makes use of German marching motifs.
Author Stephen Prince provides Peckinpah-friendly commentary that's more informative than usual; he analyses the historical basis for the action and gives a serviceable read of Peckinpah's themes. He starts from the assumption that Cross of Iron is a great film, and does a good job of defending that opinion.
The disc has both English and French soundtracks and a gallery of German lobby cards. The snowbound image on the original poster art misrepresents the film, which all takes place in bright summertime forests.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Cross of Iron rates: