Wednesday 28 August 2019

Movie Review: Cross Of Iron (1977)

A World War Two epic, Cross Of Iron examines German class warfare on the bloody front lines of the global conflict.

It's 1943 on the Eastern Front, and on the Crimean Peninsula the German Army is retreating under pressure from Russian forces. Sergeant Steiner (James Coburn) is a legendary and decorated platoon leader, one of the few remaining hopes for some battlefield success. His commander Colonel Brandt (James Mason) along with the jaded Captain Kiesel (David Warner) give Steiner plenty of leeway, but all this changes when Prussian Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell) arrives at the front having requested a transfer from France.

Stransky is from a privileged background and knows nothing about combat, but covets the Iron Cross for bravery in the field. He immediately clashes with Steiner, who does not hide his disdain for the entitled officer class. A Russian assault and German counterattack end with Steiner wounded and sent to a rehabilitation hospital, while Stransky falsely lays claim to the medal, further straining the relationship between the two men. But with the German front disintegrating, personal conflicts will merge into a chaotic retreat and improvised rearguard action.

An adaptation of the 1955 Willi Heinrich book The Willing Flesh, Cross Of Iron is a stunning condemnation of war and an unrelenting front line experience. For 133 intense minutes director Sam Peckinpah recreates what it means to be under a continuous barrage, with almost every scene taking place either in forward command posts under the regular thud of landing mortar shells or right on the chaotic and gruesome front lines, the vicious battles often culminating in hand-to-hand combat.

Even when Steiner is wounded and dispatched to a hospital for recuperation, the war travels with him. His concussion and shell shock result in disturbing hallucinations, the images of war flashing through his head and distorting reality. He is surrounded by soldiers who have lost limbs and parts of their faces, and the condescending visits to the hospital by high-ranking officers only add to Steiner's sense of disgust.

Between the frequent and brilliantly conceived scenes of combat, Cross Of Iron settles down for conversations about class, politics, manipulation and the futility of war. Ironically Steiner and Stransky share a hatred for the F├╝hrer, Steiner because of his natural unease with authority while Stransky cares much more for power derived from historical privilege than race-driven nationalistic politics.

But the common ground between the two men ends there. Steiner's core belief is that men create their destiny by their own actions, while Stransky's entire being is governed by family status, and the resulting schism between the two men cannot be reconciled. Steiner defines himself with battlefield heroics and true leadership, and Stransky lives down to his reputation by quickly exploiting the secrets of men around him (in this case, homosexuality) for his own malevolent purposes.

Meanwhile Brandt is caught in the middle, a pragmatic officer all too aware of Germany's doomed near-future, and Kiesel is a would-be intellectual caught in the wrong place at the wrong time in history, duty-bound to serve but no longer able or willing to conceal his dark mood of resigned self-pity.

The performances match the grandeur of the production. In the lead role James Coburn has rarely been better, and brings to Steiner a confident arrogance flowing from steely self-belief. Maximilian Schell is the perfect foil, and ensures Stransky's inner sleaze oozes easily to the surface.

With interpersonal tension raging and a front line collapsing, Peckinpah finds poignant moments and images of despair. Steiner's platoon adopt a captured Russian boy soldier, and his fate is all the confirmation Steiner needs for the madness of war. Later, Steiner's platoon is betrayed and lost behind enemy lines, and after an arduous journey through Russian lines, including a bloody tangle with an all-female group of Russian army nurses, their worst enemy will prove to be their own army.

Steiner gets his revenge the only way he knows how, by grabbing his foe, grabbing his rifle, and marching out to "where the Iron Crosses grow". If wars have to be fought due to the delusions of the ruling class, the only alternative for men like Steiner is to join the insanity with honour intact.

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  1. I saw this film a few years ago in my exploration of Sam Peckinpah as I think it's his most underrated work of his career. It's a film that offers so much in a traditional war film as it was a film that got overlooked but was praised by the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Orson Welles.

    1. Yes, 1977 offered up two brilliant grand-scale WW2 films: Cross Of Iron and A Bridge Too Far. Both are stellar, and both at the time were poorly received and vastly underappreciated. The national psyche at the time was bruised by Vietnam and not interested in dour WW2 war movies, no matter how thoughtful; the escapist fare of Star Wars was more in tune with the mood. 1978's The Deer Hunter opened the door to again appreciating war movies, as long they were tackling Vietnam.


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