Cross of Iron: Sam Peckinpah’s gritty and unflinching World War II epic is one of the greatest anti-war films ever made

Cross of Iron (1977), starring James Coburn, James Mason and Maximillian Schell in lead roles, is Sam Peckinpah’s bleak, pessimistic WWII epic about a band of retreating German soldiers on the Russian frontier.

It’s hard to believe that director, ‘Bloody’ Sam Peckinpah made just one ‘War’ film in his career. The film was “Cross of Iron (1977),” and with it, he did to War films (and WWII movies in particular) what he did to the ‘Western’ genre with “The Wild Bunch (1968)”; that’s to totally deglamorize and demythologize war, and portray the soldiers as either ruthless killers, cynical professionals or ambitious cowards – totally removed from any heroic, altruistic or patriotic motives in fighting their battles. The film tells the story of a group of German soldiers during WWII stationed on the Eastern front- at a time when the Soviet army was beating back the German invaders. Though the broad focus of the film is on the skirmishes between German and soviet armies, the film’s intimate focus is on a ‘class war’ between the film’s two main protagonists: Sergeant Rolf Steiner (James Coburn), and the commander of his infantry battalion, Captain Stransky (Maximillian Schell). Steiner is a cynical, world-weary soldier who is sort of a social outcast and feels comfortable only in the army. He has contempt for authority and disdains his superiors, but he grudgingly endures them. Stransky, on the other hand, is from an aristocratic Prussian family. He’s basically a coward, but he yearns to win the ‘Iron Cross’ – that’s awarded for bravery in battle – to prove his worth to his family. And to this end, Stransky requested himself to be transferred from the comfort of ‘Occupied France’ to front line duty in Russia. It’s ‘hate a first sight’ for both Steiner and Stransky, and their combative relationship, that starts out over giving asylum to a captured Russian boy-soldier, soon escalates to a personal level: when Steiner becomes the sole stumbling block in Stransky achieving his much cherished ‘Iron Cross.’ Stransky’s solution to the problem is to devices ways in which Steiner could be killed in action, so that ‘Iron Cross’ is his. To carry out his devious plot, he enlists the help of Lieutenant Triebig (Roger Fritz)- mainly by threat of exposure of the latter’s homosexuality. But the plan devised by Stransky and Triebig- to kill Steiner and his men mistaking them for Russians- goes horrible wrong: Steiner survives the massacre, but all his men (except two) are killed. A vengeful Steiner kills Triebig, and then goes looking for Stransky. But he does not kill Stransky, instead he offers (or challenges) to teach him how to win the ‘Iron Cross’ the right way. (his exact words are: “I’ll show you where the iron crosses grow”). Stransky accepts his ‘challenge’ and accompanies him into battle against the incoming Russians. The film closes with Stransky trying to figure out how to reload his MP40, while being shot at by an adolescent Russian soldier who resembles the boy-soldier over whom Steiner and Stransky had fought at their first meeting.. When Stransky asks Steiner for help, Steiner begins to laugh. His laughter continues through the credits,; the film opened with an intense and chilling montage of propaganda, combat newsreel and war-atrocity, with “Hänschen klein” playing on the soundtrack, and closes the same way- showing a montage of black-and-white images of civilian victims from World War II and later conflicts.

When we speak about anti-war films, it’s a given that the film will glorify war at one point or the other. All great war films; whether it’s “Apocalypse Now” or “Full Metal Jacket” or “Platoon” or “Saving Private Ryan” does succumb to a little bit of flag waving, celebration of heroism and victory in war, and stereotyping of the enemy; but “Cross of Iron” is a true antiwar film in all respects, and, in that way superior to all the above mentioned films. The reason why Sam Peckinpah manages to avoid the above mentioned pitfalls of classic (anti) war films is because he’s telling the story from the viewpoint of the Germans- the bad guys in the WWII and the ultimate losers. And by specifically setting the action in the eastern front, where the battle is between the Nazi Germany and the communist USSR, he immediately detaches the audience from taking sides. When Nazi Germany invaded The Soviet Union in 1941 it led to the worst carnage in human history. From June 1941 to the final battle of Berlin in April 1945 the conflict between the Nazis and Soviets cost the lives of 35 million people. Looking at the Nazi-Soviet conflict in WWII in isolation, then it becomes the bloodiest conflict in the history of mankind – something that might never be surpassed. Very few films are made in this setting; most of the WWII films concentrate on the battle between Allied forces and Nazis on the Western front, or the battles in the Pacific theatre. So by setting the film amidst the biggest carnage in human history, Peckinpah unequivocally establishes his ant-war intentions. There are no heroes or villains in this story. Each side is as desperate and beleaguered as the other. And the film ends on an ambiguous note- there’s no victory or defeat – just a chilling warning that wars continued to be fought and causalities of War(s) keep mounting.

And like all Peckinpah films, it’s anti-authoritarian to the core: we are not seeing Nazi soldiers fighting for the “The third Reich,” but ordinary soldiers, who are devoid of any affiliation to any political ideology, and who are just trying to do a job that they have signed up to do. Even Stransky, the aristocrat, is an anti-Nazi in the film. We identify with these soldiers as purely “soldiers” caught in the heat and tumult of battle- ripped apart from any sense of nationalism, patriotism or political affiliations. So, the audiences (and the director’s) objectivity is not colored by patriotic sentiments or morality. Peckinpah is just out to show that the biggest causality in war is humanity in general. And as in “Apocalypse now” or “Saving Private Ryan,” Peckinpah zeroes in on a small group of soldiers – here a German reconnaissance unit patrolling on the Russian front in 1943- as the chief protagonists of his film, thereby giving the film narrative strength and cohesion. It’s through them that Peckinpah explores the ugliness, the gruesomeness, the risks and the betrayals that are inherent in any war. And one of the ways in which Peckinpah achieves this is by unleashing the kind of mayhem that has rarely been seen in war films up until that time. People talk about the opening ‘D-Day’ sequences in “Saving Private Ryan” as the ultimate cinematic demonstration of the horrors of war, but Peckinpah got there in 1977 itself, when technology was very limited, and Peckinpah himself was handicapped with budgetary constraints and unavailability of military hardware.

To capture the dusty, chaotic nature of the war, Peckinpah has shot the whole film in brownish, dusty hues. The war sequences in the film has the same visceral power, verisimilitude and elasticity of time that Peckinpah showcased with the gunfights in “The Wild Bunch.” The explosions caused by Artillery-attacks are nothing like the ones you have seen in other war films of the time: they blasts fragments, rocks and debris, which in turn impales human flesh, leaving soldiers bloodied and mutilated. The atmosphere, which is foggy to begin with, is made even more hazy with smoke and dust, making it unclear as to who’s fighting who. And the carnage is visualized in Peckinpah’s trademark balletic slow motion and edited together in a frenetic montage that mixes Slow-mo shots with real-time action to create a fluid sense of time and space. To show the absurdity of war, Peckinpah shoots the advancing Russian army in real time and the falling Germans in slow motion, then intercuts it with Germans firing in real time and Russian soldiers biting the dust in slow-mo, giving the impression that both sides are being defeated at the same time. We also get to see soldiers getting killed by their own army: the Russian boy-soldier, who’s freed by Steiner, is shot dead by the advancing Russian army- a shocking premonition of the attack that Steiner himself would face from his army due to the conspiracy hatched by Stransky.

And Peckinpah’s devices goes beyond the visual; as he did in his previous films, he will introduce strong elements of irony into the proceedings: look at how Triebig tries to justify his coldblooded massacre of his own troops to Steiner- who’s all ready to kill him for this betrayal; Triebig’s justification is that “I was obeying my orders“; when he obeyed his superior officer, Stransky’s order, he was just doing his soldier’s duty; that’s what he’s taught to do from day one when he enlists in the army; why kill him for doing exactly what he was trained to do?. So, when Steiner refuses to accept his reasoning and guns Triebig down in cold blood, one feels that Steiner’s in the wrong, even though he’s only avenging a betrayal. By the way, “I was obeying my orders” will be the justification parroted by every German (soldier or otherwise) who would be put to trial at ‘Nuremberg’ for war crimes. That will be the justification for the holocaust, as well as countless murders and atrocities perpetuated during the war. So, like any great war epic, the film ties together this micro ‘event’ taking place on some obscure outpost on the Eastern front with the larger ‘macro’ issues of WWII (and world at large). Also, take the whole brouhaha around awarding Stransky the ‘Iron Cross.’ The Germans are on the run, the Russians are blowing them to smithereens , and in the midst of all this, the superiors launch an enquiry into whether or not Stransky deserves the ‘Iron Cross.’ Steiner is called into testify- Steiner fully believes that Stransky does not deserve the medal and he has already said this to Stransky when the latter was cozying up to him to testify in his favor; but in front of his superiors, he hesitates in testifying against Stransky, because he’s sick of the whole setup. When pressured, he asks for a couple of days to think it over, and his indecision proves costly to him and his men. If he had unequivocally testified against Stransky, then the issue (and his troubles) would have been over then and there- he and his men would have comfortable retreated with the rest of the army. But by needlessly stretching out the matter, Stransky gets an opportunity to execute his devious plan, resulting in the massacre of Steiner’s men. The Steiner-Stransky conflict becomes a microcosm of how all great wars are usually fought; they are fought over trivial matters, where the superior officers’ stupidity, arrogance, selfishness and indecision leads to the death of countless ordinary soldiers.

James Coburn turns in (arguably) his greatest screen performance as Rolf Steiner, a highly decorated NCO who leads the German reconnaissance unit that’s the focus of the film. Coburn has already worked with Peckinpah before- each time playing variations of the same cynical, world-weary warrior. He was the one-armed scout in “Major Dundee,” and past-his-prime Sheriff “Pat Garrett”, who sells himself out to capitalist interests and hunts down his old comrade, “Billy the Kid”. Steiner is basically a mix of his characters from both these films. Steiner hates the army, he is tired of this war , and is tired of leading his company into battle day after day for the past three years. Things like serving the country, or winning medals for bravery means nothing to him. His only concern is the survival of his men and the fact that he’s alive to fight another day Things like class and rank means nothing to him, and he hates Nazism as much as the elite aristocracy- hence his immediate dislike of Stransky. But like the Pat Garrett character, he’s afraid of domesticity, and finds it hard to live without conflict around him. There is a brief section in the middle of the film, where an injured Steiner retires to a hospital (and the comforts of a civilian life) and falls in love with his nurse, Eva, played by Senta Berger- another Peckinpah regular, who played a similar role in “Major Dundee.” But this domestic bliss does not last very long, because despite his wounds not healing properly Steiner choses to return to the front with his men, leaving behind Eva and her love. It’s the same old paradox of a warrior who hates war, but cannot live without it. Even in a scene in the hospital, we see Steiner creating chaos by overturning well-arranged dinner tables of food and picking fights with the guards. Coburn has a rough face and voice and a nonchalant demeanor that’s perfect for playing these earthy, hard-bitten warriors.

On the other hand, Stransky, Steiner’s nemesis, is embodied with a lot of style and flamboyance by Maximillian Schell. Schell, who had won an Oscar for his performance in “Judgement at Nuremberg,” gets to the core of this cowardly, but arrogant and ostentatious officer, who has to con and posture his way to the ‘Iron Cross.’ Though, broadly, he’s the villain of the piece, Peckinpah does not treat him that way. For one, he’s not a Nazi, and hates Nazism as much as Steiner, but he’s blinded by his own ambitions and the pressures of being part of the aristocracy. But if anyone represents the fascist\dictatorial ideology in the film, then it’s Stransky. In a tense, gripping sequence, which Peckinpah conceives as a metaphor for Nazism, we see Stransky lying down in a commanding, seductive pose blackmailing the gay Triebig and his young lover to toe his line. We also see his vulnerable side in the lengthy conversation he has with Steiner, when he’s literally begging him to back him for the ‘Iron Cross.’ The other fine supporting performances comes from James Mason, who plays the war-weary Colonel Brandt. He sees the immorality and futility of German war aims, and is sure about Germany’s defeat in the war, but he’s optimistic that a better Germany will emerge after the war. David Warner- who starred in Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs”- plays Brandt’s adjutant, Captain Kiesel, who is more of an intellectual than a soldier, and is totally out of place in the midst of this conflict.

By the time Sam Peckinpah was making “Cross of Iron,” his career was in the doldrums. The glory days of “The Wild Bunch” was long gone, and he was down to making movies like “The Killer Elite” where James Caan was seen fighting Ninjas. Drug addiction, alcoholism and paranoia has taken over him completely, making him unemployable. Though he was always considered a combative and troublesome director who loves to fight the studios and his cast & crew, he had now become unable to function properly as a filmmaker. His filmmaking became sloppy, and films going overschedule and over budget was a constant occurrence. Add to that the fact that his films weren’t succeeding at the box office anymore, and you can understand why no major studio would touch him at this point. “Cross of Iron” was backed by a German producer, who specialized in making porn films, and was made in England and Yugoslavia. And as expected, the film was beset by money problems, equipment problems and Peckinpah’s personal problems. The money ran out before the film could be completed, and Peckinpah had to improvise a new ending before the film would be shut down. Much of the military hardware that was promised to the production by the Yugoslavian government did not arrive, butt still the tanks and other hardware used in the film are pretty accurate.

Despite all these problems, and he himself being rather past-his -prime and afflicted by personal demons, Peckinpah managed to pull together a great film. Perhaps, it was his affinity for the subject matter, and the thrill of making his first (and only) war film that inspired him to do so. Peckinpah served in the United States Marine Corps. during WWII, and the soul crushing experiences he encountered in the war inspired much of his filmmaking. Coburn’s Steiner is a typical Peckinpah antihero- a loner & loser, who desires to be honorable, but is forced to compromise in order to survive in a world of nihilism and brutality. Unlike other ‘war films’ that end up being either predominantly visceral exercises or cold intellectual exercises, Peckinpah manages to find the perfect balance between the visceral and intellectual; and he does that without wallowing in sentimentality, or making his characters break out into long monologues about the horrors of war. The film is no way perfect- some of the problems we encounter in late-career Peckinpah films- namely sloppy filmmaking and pretentiousness- is on display here as well: think of Coburn reciting a poem while setting the Russian boy-soldier free, or an extended hallucination episode that Coburn has while in hospital. But he manages to bring an uncommon amount of realism and immediacy to, both, the big scenes of carnage, as well as the quite scenes involving interaction between soldiers. The grim, and at the same time, funny state of soldiers during trench warfare- with lack of bathing, sleeping and eating facilities is very well portrayed here. He also succeeds in portraying the dual nature of a soldier- that wavers between the human and the demonic: Steiner’s men, whom we have seen as this goofy, courageous bunch trying to survive in the trenches, acquire a demonic dimension when they encounter a Russian shack filled with female soldiers. The scenes of attempted rape of the women by Steiner’s soldiers, and the subsequent violent retribution from the women are shocking for their graphic nature.

Like all Peckinpah films, the technical side is topnotch, with Peckinpah’s regular cinematographer, John Coquillon, utilizing natural light, fog and the bleak landscape to create a truly apocalyptic vision of war. The quality of the editing, credited to five editors, is rather inconsistent: Some of the trademark Peckinpah montages achieved here are truly great, but other times, either by design or accident, some of the scene transitions are rather awkward. The film is also complimented by a haunting soundtrack courtesy of Oscar winning composer Ernest Gold. Upon its release in America, the film was universally panned by critics; some even asking why this film was made at all. Commercially too the film failed- the bleak anti-war nature of the film must have appeared anachronistic in front of the popular blockbuster “Star Wars.” But it was a big success in Europe, where it spawned a sequel. Today, the film is considered a genre classic and one of Peckinpah’s greatest works. But even then, the great Orson Welles loved this film, and he telegrammed Peckinpah saying that it was ‘one of the finest war films made about the ordinary enlisted man since All Quiet on the Western Front.’


3 thoughts on “Cross of Iron: Sam Peckinpah’s gritty and unflinching World War II epic is one of the greatest anti-war films ever made

  1. I agree quite groundbreaking in it’s time. With the believability of the actors and the no holds barred Peckinpah it is to me the quintessential war film of WW 2. Prompted me to read the book upon which it is based. Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

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