The scale and depth of savagery that typified the Eastern Front of World War II made the Anglo-American experience on the Western Front seem like a summer tea-party. I don’t know if any film could capture the entirety of the experience and do it justice.
Sam Peckinpah’s only war movie instead attempts to portray the hardened fatalism of the veteran German soldiers after the tide of war had irrevocably turned against them.
Corporal Steiner (James Coburn) is a seemingly indestructible platoon leader who has long since stopped caring about who or what he is fighting for, other than his own unit. He is focused on killing Russians in order to keep his own men alive. You get the idea that these men never expect to see Germany again. Each day they do stay alive is about all the victory they can hope for.
Steiner’s life is complicated when his platoon is placed under the command of Captain Stranszky (Maximilian Schell), a deluded Prussian aristocrat who believes that Germany’s highest military honor, the Iron Cross, is practically his birthright. Obviously, this brings the two men into conflict, but this is hardly the clichéd struggle between the glory-hungry superior and the decent soldier. Steiner expects to die along with his men, thus Stranszky is no better or worse than other officers. He’s just another obstacle to staying alive as long as possible, no more or less and enemy than the Soviet army that throws women and young boys into battle alongside of their men.
Both men serve under Colonel Brandt (James Mason), a decent veteran officer every bit as fatalistic in his own way as Steiner, only not as free to say it because he actually cares if he lives or dies and, as an officer, actually has a chance.
The story plays out over a constant barrage of Soviet artillery, punctuated by several brutal, bloody attacks on the increasingly vulnerable German positions. While the violence seems tame in the wake of Saving Private Ryan, it was shockingly graphic for the time. Dozens of men die onscreen in true Peckinpah style, collapsing in slow motion, spurting blood from any number of wounds.
Coburn, Mason and Schell all give performances that rank near the best of their careers. Coburn manages to project battered decency under a seething hatred of both the enemy and his own army. The normally aristocratic Mason displays an atypically raw level of emotion as Brandt deals with the dangerously deranged Stranszky. Finally, Schell is able to suggest Stransky’s underlying insanity without hitting us over the head with histrionics.
Cross of Iron deserves to be ranked among Peckinpah’s best works like The Wild Bunch as well as the best war movies. Even if it can’t capture the scale of the war on the Eastern Front, it paints a searing portrait of its savagery and ultimate futility.