Peckinpah's film is a personal and class conflict played out on the Eastern Front in 1943, as the German retreat from their Russian conquests under growing Red Army pressure. As James Mason and David Warner preside over an accelerating withdrawal, Capt. Stransky (Maximilian Schell) arrives from France, having volunteered to be transferred to combat duty in order to win an Iron Cross to satisfy family honor. The problem, as gradually becomes apparent, is that Stransky is a bit of a chicken, a fact he makes up for with domineering bluster and a talent for finding and manipulating other people's weaknesses. He's guaranteed not to get along with Cpl. Steiner (James Coburn), the unit's best soldier, who's a bit indifferent to the niceties of rank and its privileges. They first meet after Steiner has spared a Soviet boy soldier with a mind to make him his platoon's mascot. Stransky says that rules require the boy to be shot. A subordinate takes the boy away but hides him in the barracks, temporarily defusing the situation.
Stransky wants his Iron Cross whether he earns it or not. He hopes to get it after an engagement with the enemy during which he spent most of his time in a bunker shouting into a phone. He needs two witnesses to confirm that he led a successful counterattack, regardless of the truth. He has one in Lt. Triebig, whom he has under his thumb with a threat of exposing the officer's homosexual relationship with an orderly. He wants Steiner, who suffered a concussion in the battle, to provide the other testimony. Steiner scoffs at Stransky's coveting of a "worthless piece of metal," but decides that Stransky doesn't deserve it. Stransky now dedicates himself to destroying Steiner, even sacrificing an entire platoon to prevent the newly-made sergeant from joining the latest retreat. Stransky's men have to fight their way out from behind enemy lines to reach a likely hostile welcome from their own men with Stransky and Triebig in charge....
One odd thing that eventually sinks in about Cross of Iron is that it's a film about the German army in World War II that really isn't concerned with Nazism. Neither Steiner nor Stransky really cares for the Nazi leadership, though Stransky would never think of actually challenging his leaders. He looks down on Hitler and his ilk from the perspective of a Prussian aristocrat, and he regards Steiner the same way. Automatically, Steiner's irreverence toward authority in general and officers in particular irks Stransky, and the Prussian's yearning for a medal as if it were his natural right earns Steiner's contempt. This story could just as easily have played out in World War I as in the next war with the Nazi context absent.
What seems to interest Peckinpah about the script by Casablanca scribe Julius J. Epstein et al is the contrasting social dynamics of the enlisted men and officers, which are linked by a common element of homoeroticism. Among the grunts, this seems to be an almost natural extension of the intimate comradeship on which unit cohesion depends. In one scene, a soldier threatens to disrupt a birthday party with a sustained conniption fit, but it's defused when one of his buddies abruptly kisses him.
The party is intercut with a set of scenes in which Stransky gloms on to the relationship between Triebig and the orderly and later teases them about their time in the south of France and the fact that they transferred East together.
He raises a theoretical question about whether men can get along without women. The orderly says he can if ordered to do so, after admitting that he scored a few times in France, but when Triebig says he can go one way or the other, Stransky pounces and threatens to expose him as a homosexual, subject to hanging in the Wehrmacht. He's won himself a toady who will eventually order men to fire on Steiner's platoon at Stransky's instigation. At the level of officers and aristocrats, homosexual longing, or maybe even homosociability, is a guilty secret that leaves men vulnerable to exploitation and manipulation. But in the rather idealized realm of the enlisted men, it's a spontaneous, basically innocent outgrowth of their mutual dependence for collective survival. That extends to Steiner, whose loyalty to his men outweighs a kindling romance with Senta Berger's nurse during his convalescence from the concussion.
The concussion sequence is one of the unexpected highlights of the film. Steiner is helping a man back to his lines when a shell hits, inducing the wartime equivalent of an acid trip on film that convincingly conveys the long-term disorientation Steiner suffers, including unconsummated flash-forwards to him diving into a stream in hospital garb and encountering the Russian boy, who'd been killed by his own people after Steiner had sent him home. Throughout the convalescence, Coburn's consciousness lurches back and forth between present reality, the past, and a dream state of isolation, until it becomes uncertain what's really happening to him. Is a bit at the hospital where soldiers and nurses literally toss salads into the air with rabid glee real or not? I'm not sure, and I'm pretty sure I'm not supposed to be sure.
Senta Berger tells James Coburn, "Don't get your fingers caught in the doorway on your way out!"
Another highlight for film geeks is the scene I promised to discuss in the first paragraph. This takes place while Steiner's men are behind Soviet lines. After skulking about a while and killing Commies on a bridge, we discover a woman bathing in a wooden tub. There are other women in a barn attending to various tasks, and one of them is wounded; they are Red Army soldiers. Steiner's men overpower them easily, with only one of the Russkies getting a shot off.
The Germans rest here and confiscate arms and other supplies. A few of them attempt some forced fraternization with the enemy, forgetting that they're dealing with soldiers, and a couple of them pay a high price. Steiner himself doesn't approve of rape, and when he finds one of his men bloodied and a woman battered from a violent encounter, he allows the Russian women to have their way with the scumbag before the rest of the Germans depart. As those familiar with The Inglorious Bastards may have guessed, I'm proposing that this scene in Cross of Iron with its relatively minimal female nudity is a likely source of perhaps the most famous scene in Castellari's film, in which his protagonists encounter a unit of skinny-dipping blonds who chase them off with machine guns. Given Castellari's admission of Cross of Iron's influence, even if only in business terms, I don't think this is much of a reach, though Castellari's scene is Peckinpah's original distilled into purest exploitation.
Unfortunately, Cross of Iron doesn't really hold together. The film is beautifully photographed on Yugoslav locations, but Peckinpah's characteristic editing seems to be on auto-pilot. It lacks the snap and precision of the best Peckinpah's films, and it sometimes looks as if he just can't catch the scope of modern warfare with his style. Despite that, there are plenty of powerful individual images of violence. Worse, though, the ending is pretty much incoherent. A wrathful Steiner defers his revenge on Stransky so both can fight their way to a train to get out of the proverbial Dodge. Stransky wants to show how Prussians can fight, but he proves inept. He falls down, doesn't know how to reload his weapon and wears his helmet backwards. He's a sitting duck for some Russian child soldiers who apparently decide that he isn't worth killing. This fact, or the sole fact of Stransky's pathetic clumsiness, sparks a closing fit of Peckinpahvian laughter in Coburn. Is he even going to board the train? Is Stransky going to survive? Is James Mason going to get shot leading his men into the fray? You'll never know. Instead, there's a montage of photos interspersed among the closing credits to remind you that war sucks for most people, even in distant lands in later years.
Cross of Iron is neither a great war film nor one of Peckinpah's better efforts. Schell is good (and I think I see a hint of him now in Christoph Waltz) but Coburn careens through an inconsistent characterization as a war-hating supersoldier, a man who dismisses medals in one sentence and makes a big deal about denying one to Stransky in the next, whose hints of some sort of accent emerge with almost involuntary randomness. James Mason and David Warner are good actors but just wrong as German officers, especially Mason at his advanced age. The film's flaws are deep, but it remains of obvious interest to war-film buffs, Peckinpah fans and historians of the wild world of cinema.
The trailer, uploaded by StefanCichlidoShodan, is an auteurist's wet dream, selling Peckinpah as a bigger attraction than any of the actors. One upon a time, he probably was.