Movie review: ‘Cross of Iron’

coiI 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” or “The Great Escape”) or great drama (“The Caine Mutiny” or “Stalag 17”), I’ve always liked them better than westerns. 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, 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

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 for a time from Peckinpah’s resume was a World War II film, a canvas potentially better suited to him than other directors. Ultimately, he only did one: “Cross of Iron.” It’s tough, gritty and violent. It’s not Peckinpah’s best, but it’s still good.

Cross of Iron,” named for the WWII 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 “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, who was nominated for three Oscars in his career, 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 incinerates them all.

Schell, Mason and Warner all turn in excellent efforts here and the rest of the cast is solid in support of the main players. Senta Berger, who plays “Eva,” is 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.

Peckinpah uses the hospital as a scene to display the utter despair that had reached the soldiers on the Russian front. Wounded soldiers here have ghastly wounds and Coburn wanders through 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 really 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.

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

  • Coburn was, along with megastar Steve McQueen, among the pallbearers at martial arts star Bruce Lee’s funeral. Coburn studied under and trained and traveled with Lee. Other credits in his extensive career include “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Great Escape.”
  • Oscar and Golden Globe winner 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.” Schell died earlier this year of pneumonia.
  • 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).
  • 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 IMDb.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; it is visually different with an enlarged turret). 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.
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