‘Cross of Iron’ Depicts the Brutal Collapse of the Wehrmacht
Officers and ideals will get you killed in Sam Peckinpah’s forgotten masterpiece
by MATTHEW GAULT
During a reconnaissance patrol on the outskirts of their territory, a German platoon discovers a gunner’s nest with Soviet soldiers lingering inside. The Germans creep forward, unleashing gunfire and grenades that make quick work of them.
“Look at that,” one of the victorious Germans says. He nods at a dead child soldier, his body mutilated by combat. The kid’s arms end in a mess of viscera and his eyes stare dumbly at the sky.
“Nothing we haven’t seen before,” platoon leader Sgt. Rolf Steiner tells his men. There’s a rustle and another Russian child soldier stumbles before them. His hair is blonde and his eyes bright blue. He’s terrified.
The German soldiers stare as the boy — no older than 10 years old — pulls a harmonica from his pocket and blows an awkward note. The noise is awful but it breaks the spell, and the German platoon decides to keep him.
Back at camp, the brass protests. They don’t have enough food to feed their own soldiers … let alone a prisoner. Steiner and his men take care of the child for a while, but they know what has to happen. The officers want Steiner’s platoon to execute the kid, but they can’t bring themselves to do it.
Steiner takes the boy to the edge of camp and pushes him into the wilderness. The boy turns and tosses his harmonica to the sergeant before fleeing into the woods. He doesn’t make it far. The Russian army has arrived, and Steiner watches the boy take a few tentative steps toward his comrades before they destroy the child in a burst of indiscriminate rifle fire.
The year is 1943 and the German army is being destroyed on the Eastern Front. The Wehrmacht will soon flee the Taman Peninsula. In Cross of Iron, every moment may be a soldier’s last.
Cross of Iron is a World War II film from 1977 directed by Sam Peckinpah. If you’re not familiar with Peckinpah, he’s the director Quentin Tarantino wanted to be when he was a kid. Peckinpah made The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs and The Getaway. His movies are nihilistic, gore-soaked films filled with grim humor and hard men.
Cross of Iron is his only war film and it’s a masterpiece. The story follows Steiner and his platoon during the German army’s retreat in the latter half of the war. Steiner is a legend. He’s a gruff survivor who doesn’t play by the rules. His men love him and he loves his men. The officers give him a wide berth and grant him leniency on small infractions … because he gets results.
That all changes when a new officer arrives from Paris. Capt. Stransky is everything Steiner isn’t — a Prussian aristocrat who spends more time grooming himself and fretting over his uniform than fighting.
Stransky left his comfy post in occupied Paris because he wants an Iron Cross — a German medal typically awarded for bravery in combat. The Prussian is privileged, naive and dangerous. The other officers sigh when he tells them of his desire for the cross. One offers to give him his.
But Stransky is desperate for honor. He knows the war will end soon and he won’t let it happen without earning a cross. Even if he has to cheat to get one.
Cross of Iron is a classic. It was a hit in Germany where it topped the box office, but it didn’t do well in America. At the time, the American public was still reeling from the end of the Vietnam War and wasn’t interested in watching a film about soldiers trying to survive the end of a hellish campaign. The wounds of Southeast Asia were still too fresh in 1977.
But this movie is still worth watching — and its praise is well deserved.
The action is deliberate and horrifying. The relationships between the men feels genuine and sad. James Coburn’s Sgt. Steiner grimly marches through bullets and explosions. Maximilian Schell as Cpt. Stransky is the perfect officer-asshole. James Mason and David Warner play the disgruntled, beaten-down officers who serve as the chorus for the movie.
Peckinpah based the film on the popular German novel The Willing Flesh by Willi Heinrich. The author served in the German army during the war and claimed to base the book on his experiences. Enterprising sleuths dug up some interesting connections between the fictional events and real life.
Cross of Iron had a troubled history. The film was a joint German and English production filmed in Yugoslavia. Producers hired a lot of locals to staff the movie but there was one problem — producer Wolf Hartwig was a scummy, German-born movie man who dabbled in pornography and claimed he commanded Panzers during the war.
It was 1977 and the people of Yugoslavia still remembered the war well. They took every opportunity to slow down production and harass Hartwig. Worse, Peckinpah was a terrible drunk and spent much of the film three bottles deep into vodka chased with pills.
Faced with these problems, it’s remarkable that Cross of Iron is so good. This is an old story about the difference between an enlisted man who wants to survive and an officer who wants glory. Anyone who’s talked to a combat veteran will have heard similar tales, and that’s partly why the story still resonates.
But it’s also beautiful in its violence. Often in modern films the camera shakes and jerks when blood fills the screen. Some directors push the frame to one side and let the violence happen in the audience’s periphery.
Not so with Peckinpah.
In Cross of Iron, the camera lingers on the violence. Men blown apart by bullets writhe in slow motion. The camera stares at them and doesn’t pull away. Peckinpah challenges his audience to reckon with the horrors of war and the contradictions of civilization.
Cross of Iron demands to be seen but is hard to watch. Peckinpah and the cast elevate war film cliches into high art. In one scene, a German general comes to a hospital for wounded soldiers and tells the staff he needs 65 percent of the men back at the front in three days.
The general approaches a sitting soldier to shake his hand, and the guy sticks out his wounded nub. The general grimaces and goes for the other hand, but it’s missing too. Grinning, the soldier lifts his leg and places it in the general’s waiting hand.
“I believe God is a sadist,” Steiner tells his platoon. “But he probably doesn’t know it.” He may as well be talking about Peckinpah, the sad god of Cross of Iron. He wants to punish the audience, but he’s probably not aware of it.
The brilliant director made an incredible war film about the German Wehrmacht. Yet none of the soldiers like Hitler and everyone hates the Nazis. The soldiers fight for each other but not for Germany, and they all know they’ll lose the war.
In one of the most disturbing scenes, the soldiers’ laughter fills a room as the camera lingers on photographs of concentration camps — a juxtaposition that audiences will never forget.
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