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In 1943, in the Russian front, the decorated leader Rolf Steiner is promoted to Sergeant after another successful mission. Meanwhile the upper-class and arrogant Prussian Captain Hauptmann Stransky is assigned as the new commander of his squad. After a bloody battle of Steiner's squad against the Russian troops led by the brave Lieutenant Meyer that dies in the combat, the coward Stransky claims that he led his squad against the Russian and requests to be awarded with the Iron of Cross to satisfy his personal ambition together with his aristocratic family. Stransky gives the names of Steiner and of the homosexual Lieutenant Triebig as witnesses of his accomplishment, but Steiner, who has problems with the chain of command in the army and with the arrogance of Stransky, refuses to participate in the fraud. When Colonel Brandt gives the order to leave the position in the front, Stransky does not retransmit the order to Steiner's squad, and they are left alone surrounded by the enemy and... Written by
Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Cross Of Iron is a masterpiece, one of the greatest anti-war, anti-authoritarian movies. It is one of director Sam Peckinpah's two finest works -- the other being The Wild Bunch. It deserves to be ranked in the same great war movie company as Apocalypse Now, Das Boot, Full Metal Jacket, Paths Of Glory, Saving Private Ryan, Seven Samurai, and Zulu. Its setting on the World War Two Eastern Front, its gruesomeness, and its risk-taking viewpoint on ugly combat from the German side, have tended to count against fair assessment of its considerable artistic achievements. Viewers wary of the morality of its German viewpoint and its explicitness might find that it is fundamentally about humanity in general as a victim of war. The film reflects on the humanity which may be found on all sides of conflict--including Russian humanity portrayed variously as relentless, innocent, brave, and feminine.
Cross Of Iron opens with an intense, chilling montage of nursery rhyme, propaganda, combat newsreel and atrocity. By the end of the main title the montage subtly introduces the central characters, a German reconnaissance unit patrolling on the 1943 Russian front.
This 1977 film set rarely matched standards of cinematic mayhem. Cross Of Iron explosions don't look merely like pretty fireballs -- they blast fragments, rocks and debris, leaving no doubt as to why blood gouts from stumps of limbs and shrapnel-shredded entrails. Amid the screams of wounded and dying, as dust subsides from a mortar barrage, an artillery piece shorn of its crew by a near hit swings across a pocked battlefield, its traversing wheel spinning under its own momentum. The carnage occurs in the choreographed slow motion which Peckinpah made his signature.
James Coburn turns in one of his finest roles as Rolf Steiner, a highly decorated NCO who leads a German reconnaissance squad. Steiner fights less for his country than for his comrades. He has low opinions of class and rank distinctions. He is contemptuous both of Nazism and the aristocratic Prussian arrogance of his new superior officer, Captain Stransky, played with great style by Maximilian Schell. But there are hints of a dark side. Although Steiner is articulate and philosophical he has no answer when his love interest during an enforced break from battle, nurse Eva (Senta Berger), bitterly accuses him of being afraid of what he would be without the war.
Among the many fine supporting performances, James Mason plays the war-weary Colonel Brandt. He sees the immorality and futility of German war aims, but his sense of honour and duty about the prevailing struggle makes ceasing to fight unthinkable. David Warner plays Brandt's out-of-place and out-of-time adjutant, Captain Kiesel, who represents to his colonel the hope that a more enlightened postwar Germany might arise from the ashes of inevitable defeat.
War movie buffs irritated by the technical inaccuracies common in many examples of the genre will find some satisfaction in attention to authenticity of weaponry. A range of genuine WWII German and Russian small arms appears. The T 34/85 tanks are real, although the very picky might argue that this is at least six months premature, and that for the summer of '43 they should be T 34/76. Tactics at times deviate from the textbooks, but this is a drama, not a combat manual.
At the time of writing, this great film of a great American director lacks the high quality collectors' edition Zone 1 DVD release it deserves. The Warner Home Video Zone 2 release available through www.amazon.co.uk has the high quality video and sound which have been missing from the non-studio Zone 1 releases. This film is a must-have for war movie fans.
Update as at September 2011: It appears that only the DVD and Blu-ray releases of this film for the European market - notably those published by Studio Canal - are good quality transfers, as well as being in the original widescreen aspect ratio. Studio Canal's Blu-ray release (encoded for Region B only) is significantly better even than their DVD. It shows so much more detail compared to the DVD releases, for example, that the lettering and designs of German military awards like the Krim and Kuban Shield shoulder insignia can be seen clearly on screen, and wine and beer bottle labels are easily read. The Blu-ray is available from Amazon.co.uk, but can be played only on Region B-capable Blu-ray decks. Extras on this Blu-ray include a gem, a documentary by Mike Siegel called "Passion & Poetry - Sam Peckinpah's War". This gives fascinating insight into the making of "Cross of Iron" and Peckinpah's directorial style through contemporary and later interviews with James Coburn, David Warner, Senta Berger, Maximilian Schell, Roger Fritz, Vadim Glowna, Katy Haber and Peckinpah himself. It includes a shot of Peckinpah reminiscing proudly about receiving a telegram from Orson Welles saying it was 'one of the finest war films ever made'.
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