Movie review: ‘Cross of Iron’

I have always enjoyed films about World War II. From those with great technical accuracy (“Saving Private Ryan”) to those with great casts (“The Battle of the Bulge” – click here for my review – or “The Great Escape” – click here for my review) or great drama (“The Caine Mutiny” – click here for my review – or  “Stalag 17”), I’ve always liked them better than westerns. As a baby boomer, my generation is more defined by WWII than the western frontier … at least in my book or movie screen. I have also always enjoyed the films of director Sam Peckinpah, whose only WWII film is “Cross of Iron” and while not the equal of those mentioned above or even of his best western, it is solid and effective.

‘Cross of Iron’
(1977; 119 minutes; rated R; directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring James Coburn, Maximilian Schell and James Mason)

PECKINPAH TAKES AIM AT WWII

(NOTE: I reorganized and expanded this review with additional opinion, more trivia and the updating of links on June 5, 2018.)

Director Sam Peckinpah is known for his westerns, culminating with the best being the classic “The Wild Bunch” in 1968 (he would make several more westerns, but this became his benchmark film). Missing from Peckinpah’s resume is a body of work with World War II, a canvas better suited to him than other directors, and he only did one: “Cross of Iron.” It’s tough, gritty and violent. It’s not anywhere near Peckinpah’s best, but it’s still good.

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Cross of Iron,” named for the German combat bravery medal the Iron Cross, is the story of a squad of German soldiers being squeezed to death by relentless Russian pressure on the Taman peninsula in 1943. Geography buffs, quick! Where’s the Taman peninsula? (Answer: in southern Russia with the Black Sea on the south and the Sea of Azov on the north; it is southeast of the Ukraine and directly south, although very far away, from Moscow)

James Coburn stars as “Sgt. Rolf Steiner,” a grizzled soldier who leads an equally grizzled group of soldiers. He is held in awe by his commanding colonel, played by James Mason, and his section leader “Lt. Meyer” played by Igo Galo.

Less enthralled with Coburn is the martinet “Capt. Stransky” played by Maximilian Schell, who volunteered for duty on the Russian front (possibly the only German officer to do so by 1943) so he can win the Iron Cross in battle. He arrives sitting imperialistically on a pile of his luggage but soon is knocked off his figurative horse.

Scenes of Peckenpah’s trademark slow-motion violence are interspersed with longer periods of dialogue between the characters.

Mason as “Col. Brandt” and his adjutant “Capt. Kiesel,” played by journeyman actor David Warner, opine about the war on their dark terms while Schell is still the committed Nazi. While he should just be a pawn in games between officers, Coburn’s character is actually both the fuel and spark to the fire that ultimately incinerates them all.

Here’s a look at the work of some of the cast:

  • An Oscar winner (not for this one), Coburn eases smoothly through his “Steiner” character, but he really doesn’t put it into another gear to elevate the character. He’s somewhat distracted in this film, but he’s so good that his talent makes sure this is a positive mark for his resume. Coburn was in “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Great Escape.” He also had a small part in the cult favorite “Looker,” but he deserved more screen time (click here for my review). He died at 74 in 2002 of a heart attack.
  • Oscar and Golden Globe winner (not for this one) Schell is pitch-perfect as the martinet who is first scared in battle, but by the end is just as defeated, soulless and blasé about the violence as anyone. Schell is extolled as one of the most successful foreign-born actors in Hollywood. He won his major awards for his role in “Judgment at Nuremberg” (winning out over Spencer Tracy from the same film). He also had a very dark role (no pun intended) in Disney’s “The Black Hole.” He was also nominated for an Oscar for “The Man in the Glass Booth” and I thought he did great work as the former Nazi in “The Odessa File” (click here for my review). He died at 83 in 2014 of pneumonia.
  • Three-time Oscar nominee Mason does his usual excellent and smooth turn here. You can’t simply fault him in any way, but, by the end of the film, you somehow believe he could have done a little more. Mason was in “Lolita” and “North by Northwest” and was nominated for “The Verdict,” “Georgy Girl” and “A Star is Born” (with Judy Garland; not the remake crapfest with the overrated Barbara Streisand). I liked him in the total stinker “ffolkes” with Roger Moore (click here for my review) and he was very effective in “The Boys from Brazil” (click here for my review) and as a vampire’s familiar in the terrifically scary TV effort “Salem’s Lot” from the Stephen King novel (click here for my review). Mason died at 75 in 1984 of a heart attack.
  • Primetime Emmy winner and nominee Warner does a very competent job here. His character didn’t have a chance – or the depth – to be elevated by Warner’s considerable talent and so it wasn’t. Warner was in the megahit “Titanic” and I like him in the little-remembered flick “Time After Time” (click here for my review), where he plays “Jack the Ripper” chased into modern America by H.G. Wells via time machine. He’s had a prolific career of 222 credits spanning six decades. He won for “Masada” and was nominated for “Holocaust.”
  • Senta Berger plays “Eva” and she’s Coburn’s love interest as a nurse at the hospital where he’s sent to recover from battle wounds. Her role is almost an afterthought to the rest of the film and that’s too bad. She has talent and deserved better than this character. You won’t recognize most of Berger’s resume from foreign TV, but look back to the 1960s and you’ll find her all over American TV.

Of course, there are members of Coburn’s company as well as one soldier who becomes Schell’s lackey through blackmail, but none elevate his character and therefore I’m not going to spend any time reviewing their work. Let me just write that the supporting cast offers a solid, but not spectacular, foundation for the stars.

Peckinpah uses a hospital as a scene to display the utter despair that had reached the German soldiers on the Russian front. Wounded soldiers here have ghastly wounds and Coburn wanders through them as well as the recesses of his psyche.

The most memorable moment comes as a staff officer greets wounded soldiers. He reaches out to shake one’s hand. The soldier offers a stump of a right arm. The general then offers to shake the left and gets another stump. The soldier then gives the Nazi salute with his foot.

The film winds through several battles and Coburn and his men cut off and having to fight their way back to their own lines and the final showdown between Coburn and Schell. The action sequences are truly superior, especially the penultimate fight for the tractor factory, and are very true to the period (especially since the ubiquitous U.S. Sherman or Patton tanks are not used as the pretend tanks of the combatants as seen in so many films).

If you like war movies with good action and some depth of characters, then “Cross of Iron” is one you shouldn’t miss. However, it isn’t as good as “Enemy at the Gates” (click here for my review) and is head-and-shoulders above dreck such as “The Big Red One” (click here for my review). Actually, Peckinpah’s best film is not a western – it is the Steve McQueen-Ali MacGraw action-adventure “The Getaway” (click here for my review).

Cross of Iron” didn’t rank very high at the U.S. box office in 1977. I couldn’t find any box office totals for it, but Wiki reports that it was made on a budget of $6 million. The No. 1 film of the year by far and away was “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” and that instant sci-fi classic took in $307.2 million, which was more than twice what the No. 2 film took in. The No. 2 film was “Smokey and the Bandit,” Burt’s iconic, classic car flick (click here for my review) with $126.7 million. Here are the films from 1977 that I’ve reviewed:

Additional cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Coburn was, along with megastar McQueen, among the pallbearers at martial arts star Bruce Lee’s funeral. Coburn studied under and trained and traveled with Lee.
  • The film was made in the former Soviet state of Yugoslavia (which was also the location of many other war films, including Clint Eastwood’s “Kelly’s Heroes” in 1970 – click here for my review).
  • Coburn was quoted as saying that Kris Kristofferson was supposed to have a small role in the film, but that he couldn’t make it due to a scheduling conflict.
  • Of course, the T-34/85 tanks are authentic since Yugoslavia received them over a number of years from the Russians. “Cross of Iron” has probably the most realistic tank footage of any war film. Side note (not from com): More than 84,000 T-34 tanks were built by the Soviet Union, including more than 49,000 of the “85” variant (so-called for the millimeter of its cannon). After WWII the T-34 and its variants were used across the Soviet bloc and there’s probably still some in use somewhere on the planet.

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014, 2018.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without
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