Cross of Iron

by Dexter Satterwhite

Why do soldiers fight? That question is explored in Sam Peckinpah's 1976 film, Cross of Iron. The movie stars James Coburn as Sgt. Steiner, a disillusioned platoon leader in the German Wehrmacht, fighting on the Taman peninsula in southern Russia in 1943. After two years of hard fighting on the eastern front, Steiner no longer believes in Germany's victory or even its reasons for making war in the first place. Yet, he goes about his business as a reconnaissance platoon leader in a methodical, almost cold, manner. This is depicted in the opening scene when his platoon stealthily ambushes a Russian machine gun nest, silently killing its occupants. Steiner's only remark to his fellow soldiers is "Good kill." This attitude may seem callous, but the film quickly makes the point that in war it is kill or be killed, and it quickly becomes apparent that Steiner's primary concern is the welfare of his men.

Steiner's life and that of his men might have remained his only concern, but then the aristocratic Capt. Stransky, played by Maximilian Schell, arrives. Stransky has spent the first three years of the war in France. By pulling family strings, he has arranged his transfer to the Russian front for only one reason: to win the fabled Iron Cross, the most famous German military award for valor won by the Fuhrer himself in World War I. An immediate, bitter rivalry develops between Steiner and Stransky because Steiner is already a recipient of the medal that Stransky covets, and Stransky's pro-war beliefs clash with Steiner's disillusionment.

When Sgt. Steiner is wounded and sent to a hospital in Germany, he is in a position to sit out the rest of the war, but even the traditional Hollywood romance with his nurse who pleads with him to stay does not persuade him to do so. Though he has lost faith in the war, in Germany, and in himself, he returns to his platoon.

The plot builds to a climax as Steiner's company, which is under heavy attack, desperately attempts to reach the Taman bridgehead and the temporary safety of the Crimea. The last scene ironically depicts Steiner leading his bitter enemy, Capt. Stransky, down a war torn street with the battle raging around them. "Follow me," Steiner declares, "I will show you where Iron Crosses grow."

Cross of Iron is a riveting story of World War II from the German soldier's perspective. The battle scenes are realistically gruesome, and the desperation and despair caused by constantly fighting a losing battle is brought out quite starkly in the mood of the film, the cinematography, and the dialogue of the characters. Unlike most World War II films, which often depict the enemy as a faceless villain, most of the German soldiers in Cross of Iron are portrayed as frightened human beings fighting for their lives, as well as for their country. Cross of Iron is an accurate depiction of the dehumanizing quality of the war in Russia, and the soldiers' efforts to maintain their humanity. To learn more about World War II in Russia read: Nicholas Bethell, Russia Besieged; John Shaw, Red Army Resurgent; Earl F. Ziemke, The Soviet Juggernaut. All three of these are in the Time-Life Series on World War II. Two other films that depict fighting on the eastern front very effectively are The Winter War, which deals with Russia's attack on Finland at the beginning of World War II, and Stalingrad, which mainly documents the horrors of the 1943 siege.