War films are often flashes of Allied history. After all, there’s no point in telling a story from the losing side. Saving Private Ryan would have been a flash in the pan had they not accomplished the goal expressed in the title of the film. It is, of course, interesting and engaging to see the other sides of the story. The human suffering and its equivalents within other conflicts, across the oceans and seas. Director Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron looks to do just that, following a squadron of defeatist German troopers looking to survive the pushback from Russian forces in 1943.
Led by Corporal Steiner (James Coburn), a man fixated on the safety and wellbeing of his troops rather than that of medals and accolades, finds himself at odds with Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell), a cowardly man who looks for the glory of medals while actively avoiding the conflict required to achieve such recognition and pride. These leading performances are nothing short of spectacular. Coburn, who you’ll forgive me for mistaking for Lee Marvin, is absolutely perfect in his leading role as the disgruntled, war-weary corporal. He wears the badges and medals out of duty, not a glimmer of pride is shown for what he does. His morals and humanity are still in one piece, and we open on scenes that confirm that the caring side of him is alive and well. For most of the movie, that is put to the test, as his self-effacing pessimism butts heads with the cocky, shallow Stransky. Schell provides a clear and easily detestable antagonist for the early scenes, his character arc taking a few bumps along the way that justify his earlier actions somewhat.
The strength within Cross of Iron comes from Peckinpah’s unflinching direction. Cross of Iron is one of the few war films I can remember that highlights the pain and fear of fighting in such raw detail. A plentiful number of action-packed scenes are available, providing a stellar and important mixture of engaging fighting and emotional trauma. The in-fighting of the group and the bonds that are made between them as they traverse the trenches of war are no different to that of the Americanised examples we have in the form of Hacksaw Ridge or The Bridge on the River Kwai. Peckinpah’s Western vision within Cross of Iron is one of solidarity and teamwork, just presented to us from the perspective of the Axis forces.
It’s an intensely amazing film, one that relies on the amazing chemistry put forth by a group of soldiers just looking to survive. Cross of Iron has no time to spare for the luxuries or the victories, it presents the war solely as a means of trying to survive. It doesn’t care for the politics or reasoning that goes beyond the trenches, nor does it invest any time at all in historical figures or events. It’s an odd way of describing it, but it feels like a slice of life, taken from the soldiers who cared not for what they fought in the name of, but solely cared for the wellbeing of themselves and their fellow troops.