Sam Peckinpah’s CROSS OF IRON takes place as Second Army is retreating out of Russia – demoralized and beaten. It is this backdrop of deadly defeat and despair that Peckinpah delights in unrelenting nihilism.
Be warned this movie is full of Nazis. Real fightin’ Nazis. This is James Coburn at his most coke sniffing, bench pressing, chiseled jaw, squinty eye malcontent. The fact that he plays one of the most successful Nazis on the Eastern Front is beside the point, right, he stands for the absurdity of war, the inhumanity of social climbing, and the denigration of German heroics.
Coburn plays awesome solider, Steiner, who is given a new commander, Maximilian Schell who plays, Hauptmann. The new commander is of high social standing, meticulously clean uniform, and a sneering disdain for the common solider. Hauptmann is an over-the-top villain, all but twisting his mustachio in delight as Steiner is put in harm’s way. All this hatred and double dealing is because Steiner refuses to say Hauptmann was valiant and brave when he was really cowardly and sniveling.
Hauptmann, you see, feels he needs the IRON CROSS to prove his worth and validate his family’s social standing by proving his heroics in war. While Steiner, completely disillusioned by Germany, bureaucratic morass, and the futility of war, sees the CROSS OF IRON for what it really is – a hypocritical acknowledgement by corrupt generals for acts of dumb luck and chance survival.
As war pictures go, this one is solid. It has some detailed action, a bit of suspense, and a faceless enemy. With the sole exception of the kid solider that Hauptmann refuses to shoot and might just be an angel…or something.
As far as Peckinpah movies go, this one fits the formula – men fighting the odds and rising above their situation to take on all comers to face down certain death. You know the masculinity of the lost cause. Flex.