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Film / Cross of Iron

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

A 1977 British-German World War II film directed by Sam Peckinpah, based on the 1955 German novel The Willing Flesh by Willi Heinrich, who had served during the war and was wounded five times. It is set on the Eastern Front, specifically the retreat from the Taman Peninsula during the Russian offensive of 194345.

The film focuses on a German infantry regiment led by the war-weary Colonel Brandt (James Mason), whose subordinates include his embittered adjutant, Captain Kiesel (David Warner), and the battle-hardened, officer-hating Corporal 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 after Steiner and his squad find themselves behind enemy lines, he soon discovers that there are people out for his blood in both directions.

One of only a small number of English-language films about World War II's Eastern Front; Enemy at the Gates is another. Peckinpah's only war film, it is also notable for using a large number of accurate Soviet and German weapons and vehicles, thanks to being filmed in Yugoslavia.

Provides examples of:

  • '70s Hair: Not surprising given the release year, most of the principal actors have 1970s hair-styles. (The actors in the 1993 Stalingrad film have era-appropriate haircuts.) Can be partially explained away by the general situation the characters are in - fighting for their lives on a collapsing front. One would still be hard-pressed to find anything but extremely rare exceptions in period photography, even in the most bitterly contested theatres.
  • Almighty Janitor: Steiner is a sergeant who has been busted back to corporal, but whom everybody else in the squad clearly looks to as their leader.
  • 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 suffers a brutal and humiliating Groin Attack and is soon killed after he tries to rape a female Russian soldier. It's hard to feel sorry for him, especially since he is a committed Nazi Party member.
    • Lieutenant Triebig. While Stransky was blackmailing him with a death penalty offense, he doesn't seem to hesitate in either supporting Stransky's false claims of heroism or later obeying Stransky's orders to have Steiner's squad machine-gunned while trying to get back to German lines. After the latter, he actually has the gall to deny any responsibility and blame Stransky for it all. Steiner understandably reacts by emptying an entire clip into him.
  • 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: In the penultimate scene, when Soviet troops overrun a German-held train station on the Kuban peninsula, Colonel Brandt rallies some soldiers around him to advance. The scene freezes as Brandt walks forward, heavily implying it is a suicidal last stand.
  • Book Ends: 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: Debatable. While Steiner does vent his frustration at Stransky's betrayal by shooting Triebig - a lot, it was the man's own complicity in murdering Steiner's men that gets him killed, not being homosexual (which Steiner almost certainly doesn't even know about).
  • 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.
  • Cruel Mercy: Steiner was initially planning to kill Stransky for his cowardice and betrayal as he did Triebig. Instead, Steiner decides that a better end for the cowardly and incompetent Stransky is to be humiliatingly put in his place by forcing him to fight under his (Steiner's) command.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Brandt and Kiesel are both sick of the futility of the Eastern Front by the time Stransky arrives, and their bitterness comes out in sardonic remarks delivered without even a hint of a smile.
    • Stransky's introduction to Kiesel sets the tone for their interactions, as Kiesel is suffering badly from dysentery.
      Stransky: Captain. How are you? [offers his hand]
      Kiesel: [shakes the offered hand; completely straight-faced] Thank you for asking. I feel terrible, I've got diarrhoea. How are you?
    • When Stransky tells Brandt that he asked to be transferred from France to the Eastern Front because he wants the Iron Cross, Brandt has a creative solution, as he has received multiple Iron Crosses:
      Brandt: Captain, why did you ask to be relieved from, er, duty in France?
      Stransky: [loud whisper] I want to get the Iron Cross.
      Brandt: [reaches into his pocket] We can give you one of mine.
  • Death of a Child: A Russian child soldier is killed by friendly fire. Also when Steiner's men find a dead child soldier, he grimly remarks "It's nothing we haven't seen before". The movie makes a point to show that children aren't spared from the ravages of war.
  • Defeat as Backstory: The film begins by showing footage of German generals surrendering at Stalingrad; for the rest of the film, there's a feeling among the German soldiers serving on the Eastern Front that the tide of the war has turned permanently against them.
  • Dirty Coward: Captain Stransky. Throughout the whole movie.
    • During the first Soviet assault on the German lines he cowers in his bunker babbling about needing 'air cover' and 'where are my tanks?' to repel an attack that is fairly minor (by Eastern Front standards).
    • After Lieutenant Meyer is killed leading the successful defense against this same attack, Stransky then has the gall to claim the victory as his own in his bid for an Iron Cross, blackmailing Lieutenant Triebig with his homosexuality and trying to bribe Steiner as well in support of this.
    • When Steiner refuses to corroborate his lies, Stransky deliberately leaves Steiner's unit behind while the rest of the regiment retreats westward.
    • After Steiner survives this ploy and later radios ahead to inform the Germans his men are inbound wearing Soviet uniforms, Stransky orders Triebig to have Steiner's men killed in a 'friendly fire' accident, resulting in all but three of them being murdered by their own comrades.
    • Finally when Steiner challenges Stransky to accompany him to "where the Iron Crosses grow", Stransky does go into battle but is reduced to begging for help and is last seen cowering behind cover again.
  • Do with Him as You Will: Sergeant 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.
  • 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".
  • Driven to Villainy: 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.
  • The Eeyore: Captain Kiesel shows traits of it, but given the setting he's justified.
  • The Enemy Weapons Are Better: Steiner and some of his men capture a number of Russian PPSh-41 submachine guns and their accompanying drum magazines. They use these almost exclusively for the rest of the film rather than their standard-issue MP-40s.
  • Everybody Calls Him "Barkeep": Lance Corporal "Schnurrbart".
  • Everybody's Dead, Dave: Steiner, after Stransky has Steiner's men machine-gunned on returning from behind enemy lines.
    Stransky: Where is the rest of your platoon? Sergeant Steiner!
    Steiner: You, Captain Stransky. You are the rest of my platoon.
  • A Father to His Men: Sergeant Steiner, Lieutenant Meyer and Colonel Brandt are all well aware that Germany will lose the war, and want to keep as many of their troops alive as possible rather than throwing their lives away in pointless displays of defiance or patriotic zeal.
  • 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: The "Russians" speak with a noticeable Serbo-Croatian accent. The soldiers in the trucks actually sing "Oj Kozaro", a Yugoslav partisan song, in Serbo-Croatian.
  • Groin Attack: Zoll has his...member bitten off by a Russian soldier he forces to perform oral sex.
  • Hate Sink: Stransky is not only a vain and arrogant Prussian officer who feels entitled to an Iron Cross despite his incompetence and cowardice, but one who is willing to lie and sacrifice the lives of the men under his command so he can win glory under false pretenses.
  • 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.
  • It's All About Me: Stransky's attitude towards the soldiers under his command. According to Stransky, they're all expendable and only there to make a name for him and win him an Iron Cross.
  • Just Plane Wrong: Shortly after Steiner returns to the front from the hospital, the German positions come under air attack. However, the attacking planes are all highly distinctive F4U Corsairs, a type never supplied to the Soviets. They're even still in dark blue US Navy paint schemes!
  • 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.
  • Meaningful Name: Lance Corporal Reisenauer sports a doozy of a 'stache. His nickname is Schnurrbart (German for mustache).
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: Said word-for-word by Stransky.
  • Nazi Nobleman: Surprisingly averted. Stransky may be a nobleman, and carries out the brutal orders of his superiors without complaint, but he views the crass, populist Nazi movement with a distaste befitting his class.
  • Nazi Protagonist: The only "evil" Nazi in the film is none other than Captain Stransky. Triebig, on the other hand, is an Anti-Villain.
  • The Neidermeyer: Stransky.
  • New Meat: Private Dietz, who looks like he's in his late teens and has no combat experience, is assigned to Steiner's platoon near the beginning of the movie.
  • 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 Kiesel with an unapologetic English accent.
  • Nothing Personal: Steiner out and out tells Brandt and Kiesel 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.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Colonel Brandt and Captain Kiesel. They consistently look after their soldiers' welfare and tolerate Steiner's sometimes insubordinate behavior, even after Steiner tells them that he hates all officers (even 'more enlightened' ones like Brandt and Kiesel). Notably, after fellow officer Stransky tries to earn an Iron Cross by claiming to have lead a successful counterattack (a victory actually won by an able subordinate who was killed doing so) Brandt suspects otherwise and actively encourages Steiner - a 'mere' sergeant - to expose Stransky's lies.
  • Sanity Slippage: Steiner goes through this when recovering in the hospital.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Steiner lets the Child Soldier the squad captures go free. He's almost instantly machine gunned to death by a Russian soldier.
  • 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 confirmed survivor of his platoon in the end.
  • The Squad
  • Stock Footage: A montage of stock footage of Nazi Germany and Eastern Front combat over the opening credits. The switch to the actual film is done rather cleverly, with clips of the movie in black-and-white blended in with the b&w stock footage, before color stock footage gives way to the film proper.
  • Straight Gay: Triebig and his orderly show no stereotypical behaviour.
  • Tanks, but No Tanks: Averted. The film used real, Yugoslav-made, T-34s in several scenes. Although the models used would be slightly anachronistic for the 1943 the film is set in. The Yugoslav SU-85 assault guns, however, were completely correct in all contexts.
  • Tank Goodness: The Russians during their second attack on the German line.
  • Translation Convention: The German characters all speak English.
  • 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 few 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 but two of Steiner's remaining soldiers end up dead.
  • War Is Hell: The plot follows a squad of war-weary soldiers simply fighting to stay alive.
  • Wham Line: A member of Steiner's squad asks him where his children are. He simply responds with "I don't know."