Cross of Iron Review

Through his films Sam Peckinpah frequently explored the relationships between men and violence and the relationships between men thrust together, but Cross of Iron stands out as being his only foray into the war film genre, although films such as The Wild Bunch and Major Dundee certainly flirt with similar thematic concerns.

In venturing into the then somewhat overstuffed area of WWII war films Peckinpah unsurprisingly chose to do something a little different, framing the conflict not from the side of the Allied forces but making a film that embeds us in the trenches with the German troops. Shot mostly on location in Yugoslavia Cross of Iron reconstructs the Eastern Front circa 1943 and centres on the German troops fighting there.

Arriving at the front-line early in the film is Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell), a stuffy Prussian officer desperate to win the prestigious Iron Cross. At the front he finds a dejected group of men who seem to care little for the reasons for the war and appear to have all but given up, asking questions such as “What will we do when we lose the war?”. One man stands out though as a venerated hero and a force to reckoned with, a legend amongst the men and his name is Corporal Steiner (James Coburn).

Coburn himself described Steiner as “…a gentleman gone berserk.” and it’s hard to disagree with that assessment. Steiner is one of Peckinpah’s many great creations, at once a fascinating and layered character but also one so seemingly fixated on a single purpose. It is the character of Steiner and Coburn’s hardened performance of him that is one of the film’s most memorable strengths.

Peckinpah’s direction also stands out seeming almost effortlessly measured and assured, with the scenes of action being particularly noteworthy for their visceral impact. The scenes of the men simply hanging out and discussing the war are also expertly weaved into the film though with an attention paid to the meaning of war and why men fight. At no point though does one feel as if a polemic is being thrust into the film, despite the heady discussions surrounding war and the obvious parallels to discussions being had in a post-Vietnam America.

Through engaging with the war genre Peckinpah finds the bleak and pointless nature of war and the cold truths from the men who fight. When asked, for instance, if he believes in God Steiner replies “I believe that God is a sadist and doesn’t even know it.”. War as presented in Cross of Iron is dramatic, scary, intense and brutal but perhaps most significantly absurd and often futile.

A slightly different version of this review was originally posted at HeyUGuys.