Film / Cross of Iron

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Colonel Brandt: What will we do when we have lost the war?
Captain Keisel: Prepare for the next one.

A 1977 film directed by Sam Peckinpah, and his only war movie, based on the novel The Willing Flesh by Willi Heinrich, who served during the war and was wounded five times. According to Quentin Tarantino, it's the inspiration for Inglourious Basterds. It is set on the Eastern Front during World War II, specifically the retreat from the Taman Peninsula during the Russian offensive of 1943-1945. It is also notable for using a large number of accurate Soviet and German weapons and vehicles, thanks to being filmed in Yugoslavia.

The film focuses on a German infantry division commanded by the war-weary Colonel Brandt (James Mason), whose subordinates include the embittered Captain Kiesel (David Warner) and the battle-hardened, officer-hating Corporal (later Sergeant) Steiner (James Coburn). Their lives are thrown into disarray by the arrival of Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell), an arrogant, aristocratic Prussian and a Glory Hound who wants to win the Iron Cross. When Steiner refuses to lie for Stransky when the latter tries to claim credit for an attack that might get him the Iron Cross, a battle of wills ensues between the two men, and when Steiner and his squad end up behind enemy lines, he soon discovers that there are people out for his blood in both directions.

Provides Examples Of:

  • Adult Fear: A member of Steiner's squad asks him where his children are. He simply responds with "I don't know."
  • Amazon Brigade: The squad captures several female Russian soldiers in the third act.
  • Anti-Hero: Most of Steiner's squad are just ordinary people fighting to stay alive. Still, they are fighting for Nazi Germany, and have plenty of blood on their hands.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: The Prussian Captain Stransky is arrogant and a Glory Hound. He tries to claim the heroism of the (deceased) Lieutenant Meyer as his own, and when Steiner threatens to get in his way, blackmails Triebig, whom he has deduced is gay, to kill Steiner.
  • Asshole Victim: Zoll.
  • Authority Equals Asskicking: Colonel Brandt and Lieutenant Meyer.
  • Badass Baritone: Steiner. Comes with being played by James Coburn.
  • Badass Mustache: Lance Corporal Reisenauer sports a doozy. His nickname is Schnurrbart (German for mustache).
  • Bayonet Ya: Lieutenant Meyer is killed by a Russian bayonet.
  • Blackmail: Stransky deduces that Triebig is gay, and has a relationship with his orderly. He uses this knowledge, first to get Triebig to sign a recommendation for the Iron Cross, then to force him to kill Steiner.
  • Bolivian Army Ending: Brandt, when the situation becomes hopeless, rallies several soldiers and leads a counterattack. The way the scene is shot strongly implies he will be killed in action.
  • Bookends: Both the very first sound we hear as the opening credits begin and the very last sound we hear as the closing credits finish are a single child's voice singing the first line of the German folk song "Hänschen klein" by Franz Wiedemann.
  • Bury Your Gays: Steiner vents his frustration at Stransky's betrayal by shooting Triebig. A lot.
  • Child Soldiers: The squad capture one during an attack on a Russian mortar position. They adopt him, but Steiner eventually releases him. he is gunned down by attacking Russians. Another one, played by the same actor but with dyed hair, shows up in the finale and shoots at Stransky.
  • Cool Guns: Several of the squad, including Steiner, carry captured Russian PPSh submachine guns, to great effect.
  • Crapsack World: For the Wehrmacht, forced to fight in miserable conditions for a war that they are going to lose.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Brandt and Kiesel both have moments of this when they first meet Stransky. When Stransky asks Kiesel how he is, Kiesel sarcastically replies that he has dysentery, thanks for asking. And when Stransky tells Brandt that he asked to be transferred from France to the Eastern Front because he wants the Iron Cross, Brandt, who has been awarded multiple Iron Crosses, reaches into his pocket and sarcastically says he can give Stransky one of his.
  • Dressing as the Enemy: Ends disastrously. Steiner's men are isolated from their unit and must wear Soviet uniforms to sneak back to their base. Stransky knows about the deception as Steiner has radioed ahead, but as he is trying to keep Steiner from exposing his dishonesty in putting in for the Iron Cross, he orders his men to shoot the approaching "Russians".
  • The Eeyore: Captain Kiesel shows traits of it, but given the setting he's justified.
  • Everybody Calls Him "Barkeep": Lance Corporal "Schnurrbart": see the entry for Badass Mustache.
  • A Father to His Men: Sergeant Steiner, Lieutenant Meyer and Colonel Brandt.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Stransky is capable of affecting a friendly, conversational tone and an understanding attitude in order to Bait the Dog and make two gay lovers admit to their affair... just before threatening them with execution if they are ever caught and using the information to blackmail one of them.
  • Gasshole: Kern.
  • Glory Hound: Stransky is from old Prussian aristocratic stock, and is determined to live up to his family heritage by getting an Iron Cross for bravery on the field of combat by volunteering for a transfer to the Eastern Front. Never mind that he has neither the courage nor the know-how to function effectively in combat.
  • God Is Evil: Steiner certainly thinks so.
    "I believe that God is a sadist, but probably doesn't even know it."
  • Gratuitous Russian: Most of the time the "Russians" are actually speaking Serbo-Croatian. Especially noticeable when the soldiers in the truck sing "Oj Kozaro", a Yugoslav partisan song.
  • Groin Attack: Zoll has his...member bitten off by a Russian soldier he forces to perform oral sex.
  • Hopeless War: And the German soldiers are fully aware of it. Colonel Brandt explicitly asks Captain Kiesel what he expects will happen when (not if) the Germans lose the war.
  • Honey Trap: One of the female Russian soldiers seduces Dietz, then stabs him.
  • Ironic Nursery Tune: The film is bookended by the German folk tune "Hänschen klein", sung by first a single child's voice and then a chorus of children to open the film (the order is reversed at the end of the film), the words about a boy who went out into the world and then came home a man providing an ironic juxtaposition to the boys who went off to war and never came back, or the unworldly Stransky's misguided and doomed quest to cover himself in glory with a voluntary transfer to the Eastern Front.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Stransky's plan to kill Steiner involves having him and his squad gunned down by a machine gun in a "friendly-fire" accident. It doesn't kill Steiner, but does succeed in wiping out most of his men.
  • Monster Sob Story: At one point, Stransky privately admits to being a coward and even says he didn't want to be a soldier. But had he refused, his family would have disowned him.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: Said word-for-word by Stransky.
  • The Neidermeyer: Stransky.
  • New Meat: Private Dietz.
  • No Ending: At the end, Sgt. Steiner and Capt. Stransky are fighting together for survival during the final Soviet assault. When they cross the railroad tracks, Stransky shoots two Soviets, emptying the magazine of his MP-40. He trips and falls, and Steiner shouts at him to get up. Stransky, panicking at his empty gun, begs Steiner to tell him how to reload. A Soviet boy soldier shoots at him and knocks off his helmet as Steiner begins to laugh manically. The screen freezes with a shot of Stransky putting his helmet on backwards, then cuts to the boy soldier trying to fire a jammed MP-40 and shaking his head in disgust, and finally to Steiner limping away laughing hysterically. The film ends rather ambiguously with a shot of an explosion and Steiner's maniacal laugh continuing into the credits. This abrupt ending was due to budget issues demanding improvisation and rewrite of the final scene.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: David Warner plays Captain Keisel with an unapologetic English accent.
  • Nothing Personal: Steiner out and out tells Brandt and Keisel he hates them, not because of any personality faults, but because he hates officers as a class.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Steiner's reaction to Zoll raping one of the female Russian soldiers then beating her is to lock him in a room with the girl's comrades.
  • Sanity Slippage: Steiner goes through this when recovering in the hospital.
  • Shout-Out: The film closes with a quote from Bertolt Brecht's play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (an allegory for Nazi Germany set in Prohibition-era Chicago): "Don't rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again."
  • Sergeant Rock
  • Sole Survivor: Steiner is the only survivor of his squad in the end. All the others are either dead or seriously wounded.
  • The Squad
  • Straight Gay: Triebig and his orderly show no stereotypical behaviour.
  • Tanks, but No Tanks: The film takes place in 1943; the Soviet tanks in the movie are T-34-85s which weren't even used until 1944.
  • Tank Goodness: The Russians during their second attack on the German line.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Subverted. Stransky joins Steiner in the end during a counterattack...then completely fucks it up because he doesn't even know how to reload his submachine gun.
  • Uncertain Doom: While the movie ends in the middle of a battle, it's not likely many Germans survived, including the remaining major characters. The only major character who may have survived is Kiesel, who is last seen slumped in the sidecar of a departing motorcycle after Brandt orders him evacuated from the front lines so that he can help to re-build what is left of Germany after the war.
  • Unfriendly Fire: It happens towards the end of the movie, and it isn't pretty. Stransky arranged it deliberately, aiming to get rid of Steiner. He fails, but all of Steiner's remaining soldiers end up either dead or seriously wounded.
  • War Is Hell: The plot follows a squad of war-weary soldiers simply fighting to stay alive.

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