I saw this film in 1993 at 29 Palms in the Marines. It was selected as a training film for the entire company by my platoon leader who wanted to depict the leadership qualities of the noncommissioned officer & the cohesion of small units. It got a tepid reception from Marines, then enamored of sci-fi actioners & the sardonic 'Full Metal Jacket,' who thought the scenes of male bonding were sappy, or 'gay.' Nor did the company commander seem to appreciate Peckinpah's anti-establishment tone. Anti-establishment is really the best description of 'Cross of Iron' rather than anti-war and, though it is his only real war film, holds to the dark theme of government/corporation vs. manly individualist that marked most major Peckinpah films. The story follows ace platoon NCO Steiner (Coburn) as he holds together his elite but war-weary men & deals with his officers: wise Colonel Brandt (Mason), dissolute adjutant Kiesel (Warner), heroic Lt. Meier (Galo) and weaselly Lt. Triebig (Fritz). Hardest to deal with is his company commander, the ambitious, arrogant Captain Stransky (Schell) who transferred from the comfort of France to the horrors of the East to, as Kiesel notes, achieve 'spiritual domination' of the war, symbolized by his obsession with winning the Iron Cross. Significantly, most of the experienced soldiers, including all the other officers, have already won the Iron Cross while Meier & Steiner, Stransky's subordinates, are highly decorated. Though not well known in English, Heinrich's book is a World War II counterpart to 'All Quiet on the Western Front' as it starkly depicts a German soldier's struggle to remain human through the horrors of Total War & the prospect of Total Defeat. Heinrich is a bit awkward & preachy compared to Remarque & this comes through in the film, notably in scenes with the officers. For a film with a modest budget, it's pretty long, accentuating the preachiness. The impressive multinational cast suffers from the necessity of putting English-speaking stars in the main roles. Only Coburn & Warner make even slight attempts at German accents. Coburn depicts, rather than details, Steiner, using his wicked smile & humor sparingly while bringing to life a talented, tortured individual torn between his hatred of war, love for his friends & his fear of leaving the only world he knows. Mason is, as usual, both nuanced & commanding. Schell is fine as the pompous captain but only gets a chance to show his tremendous talent when Stransky is manipulative, notably the scene in which he blackmails Triebig. The fine Senta Berger gets little chance to develop nurse Eva. The soldiers are all scruffy to the point of ugliness, a Peckinpah feature discarded in the body-by-Soloflex action films made from the 1980s onward. Peckinpah had refined his trademark touches to a fine point. There's the brotherly love the men share without being 'gay' as well as their conflicted attitude toward women, at once desiring, worshiping & fearing them. The contrast of hardened, jaded veterans with innocent youth, first explored in "The Wild Bunch," permeates 'Cross of Iron' in Steiner's interaction with the Russian boy (Prohic) & Private Dietz (Nowka), the latter playing a 'kid's game' of avoiding sunlight as the platoon is about to make an attack. Like 'The Wild Bunch,' the film has a bizarre but engrossing opening montage, featuring war & Nazi footage mixed with band music & a German child's rhyme. Above all is the theme of resistance to oppressive authority. Steiner rejects the bullying of Stransky but also the condescending sympathy of Brandt & Kiesel, which he hates just as much, and expresses disdain for all 'medal scavengers.' Two new Peckinpah features: a surrealist motif including flashbacks & fantasies, and an overt political tone driven home by photos of Vietnam & a Brecht quote in the closing montage. The action scenes, especially the slow-motion effects, are as good as any by Peckinpah. Considering the low budget, they should be the stuff of legend, featuring extraordinary photography & precise, correct detail. Peckinpah's operatic violence contrasts with the crushing, unmanning action depicted in versions of 'All Quiet in the Western Front.' To balance making a film about the most demonized military machine in history, Peckinpah is at pains to depict ALL the major German characters, even Stransky, as anti-Nazi. Stransky declares himself a Prussian aristocrat, Steiner is openly disdainful of a SS soldier & Brandt lays plans for the existence of Germany after the Nazis. The platoon soldiers wear a mishmash of uniform, civilian clothes & pilfered Soviet items, further de-Nazifying them. This is probably Peckinpah's gloomiest film except 'Alfredo Garcia'--which is pretty gloomy--but it lacks the exquisitely artful darkness of 'Apocalypse Now.' Then again, Heinrich's book isn't 'Heart of Darkness.' If you can watch 'All Quiet,' 'Cross' & 'Apocalypse' all in one day without abandoning all hope, then you're as cheerful as Pippi Longstocking. 'Cross of Iron' is a unique work, either as a war film, an action movie or even a Peckinpah work.
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