Cross of Iron is a British-German 1977 war film directed by Sam Peckinpah, featuring James Coburn, Maximilian Schell, James Mason and David Warner. The film is set on the Eastern Front in World War II during theSoviets' Caucasus operations against the Wehrmacht's Kuban bridgehead on the Taman Peninsula in late 1943. The film focuses on the class conflict between a newly arrived, aristocratic Prussian officer who covets winning the Iron Cross and a cynical, battle-hardened infantry NCO. The screenplay was based on the 1956 novel The Willing Flesh by Willi Heinrich, a fictional work that may be loosely based on the true story of Johann Schwerdfeger
It took a new generation of cinema goers in the 1970s to engage with more realistic and graphic depictions of war; movies such as Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron (1977) about a squad of German soldiers fighting on the muddy, smoky Eastern Front during WWII.
As a war film Cross of Iron is authentic, violent, visceral and exciting. As an anti-war statement it is moving, politically astute and increasingly relevant as we find ourselves in an era of on-going conflict. There is some irony in the fact that its anti-war message is delivered with Peckinpah's eye for artful violence and an almost lascivious love of war imagery, but ultimately they are essential qualities if such a movie is to be successful in the delivery of its key themes. Peckinpah makes no concessions either, framing his own directing credit in the opening titles in the frozen image, and sound, of an explosion. He leaves viewers in no uncertainty regarding the content to come. Things will explode and bullets will fly.
- The ending wasn't the original ending in the script. At the time the film had run out of money so Sam Peckinpah got James Coburn to improvise.
- The lyrics to the famous 'Kinderlied' which is played over the montage at the beginning of the movie are, in German: Hänschen klein Geht allein In die weite Welt hinein. Stock und Hut Steht im gut, Ist gar wohlgemut. [first verse] Which, translated, means: Little John He has gone Out to see the world alone Staff and hat, Look at that, He's one happy cat. But his mommy cries a lot Now she has no Johnny got. "Fortune find, But you mind, Come back to your kind." Seven years, Joy and tears, John in many lands appears. Then he thought That he ought To go home and got - But now he's no Johnny small, No, he is now big John tall. Tall and tanned, Face and hand. Will they know this man? One, two, three Pass and see, Don't know who this man might be. Even Sis: "Who is this?" Knows not who he is. Then along comes mother dear, Barely sees his eyes so clear, Says: "My son, Welcome home, God bless you my son." [all verses]
- Filmed in Yugoslavia with money put up by a West German porn producer.
- Steiner carries a Russian PPSh-41 submachine gun originally chambered for 7.62x25 Tokarev, a round the Germans did not (officially) use. But the 41 was easily rebarrelled for 9 millimeter parabellum round, which the Germans did use, and the weapon was, in fact, adopted by the Germans as the MP717(r). While the drum magazine worked with 9mm ammo, the Russian curved stick magazine did not. If the Germans chose to use stick magazines with this gun, they had to modify the magazine housing to accept German issue MP38/40 magazines. However, doing this would prevent the use of the drum magazines. So Steiner's weapon, therefore, may be in the original caliber, or may have been rebarrelled for 9mm parabellum, but had not been modified for German stick magazines.
- The pistol Stransky draws to shoot the teenage Russian prisoner at the first meeting with Steiner is a Model 1934 Beretta.
- The German general who visits the hospital is dubbed by Robert Reitty.
- Sgt. Steiner, as an officer at the hospital notes, "has been highly decorated." His awards: the Iron Cross 2nd Class, Iron Cross 1st Class (rarely awarded to enlisted men), the Silver Wound Badge (3 separate times wounded), the Infantry Assault Badge (combat in 3 separate battles) and the rare Gold Close Combat Bar.
- According to Vadim Glowna, Sam Peckinpah emptied four whole Bottles of Whiskey or Wodka during every entire day of shooting while only sleeping approximately only 3 or 4 hours per Night.
- This is the only ever war film that was directed by Sam Peckinpah.
- This film's final closing coda is a quote from Bertolt Brecht: It states: "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."
- Many Russian infantrymen in the film are carrying Mosin-Nagant (M-N) M44 Carbines, some with extended bayonets. However, the M44 did not enter service until the year 1944, and the battle depicted in the movie took place in 1943. The standard Russian rifles during that year were the older M-N M1891/30 rifle and the M-N M38 carbine.
Russian soldier with Mosin Nagant M44 Carbine. Note the folding "spike" type bayonet
- When the Russian woman bathing in the washtub stands up, bikini tan lines are visible.
- The Russian tanks used in this movie are T34s with the 85 mm gun which were not in production at the time of the movie. T34s with the 76 mm gun would be the right choice, but there were not many left and quite a few countries still had T34/85s when the movie was made, so the wrong tank was used.
- The way Kiesel holds his glass changes (early in movie).
- The regiment headquarters calling for Corporal Steiner. Come in Steiner." The film starts with this repeating radio message. It's even heard by Steiner and his men who are on their hush-hush job behind the enemy lines: a reconnaissance mission. Calling Steiner just makes no sense, especially with the name.
- When Steiner and his men are waiting to cross the road, the Russian soldiers on the tanks are singing "Oy Kozaro", a Yugoslav fighting song, which Russian soldiers would not know. The Yugoslav extras probably didn't know any Russian songs and figured nobody would know the difference.
- In an already described scene, where Russian soldiers are singing Yugoslav song "Oy Kozaro", there are some more mistakes. The Russian soldiers are all wearing regular Yugoslav People's Army uniforms from the mid '70s, the trucks are model TAM (made in Slovenia for YU army between 1960-75), the registration plates on the trucks are regular registration plates of YU Army.
- The Soviet planes that bomb the German trench system are actually U.S. Navy Vought F4U Corsairs and were never given to the Russians. You can even see the U.S. military markings on them.
U.S. Navy Vought F4U Corsairs
- The German machine guns shown in the film are portraying MG42s, a weapon commonly known as having a high rate of fire (around 1,200-1,500 rpm). The machine guns we see and hear in the film are actually M53s, the postwar Yugoslavian copy of the MG42 with a much slower rate of fire (500-600rpm).
A Wehrmacht soldier fires a MG42
- During Sgt Steiner's hospitalization for wounds, he yells from the hospital balcony to a driver below, "Corporal, hold that truck!" However, the rank insignia on the driver's shoulder straps clearly indicates that he is a Senior Sergeant.
- Oberst Brandt is wearing the Krim shield on his right arm. It is worn on the left arm only.
- Although dozens of rifles, submachine guns, and machine guns are fired during the movie, in only one instance are spent cartridge cases shown to be ejecting during firing (this occurs near the end of the film, as Sgt Steiner is firing a captured Russian submachine gun at Lieutenant Treibig).
- During the starting minutes (about 10-15 after the title credits) of the film, a soldier is shown to be blasted through his waist and back before falling on barbed wire, the gory wound reveals blood bags under the wound which can be very clearly seen
- In the final assault, Russian soldiers are seen firing a PTRS-41 Anti-Tank rifle. The bullet fired caused, upon impact, a massive explosion killing a few German soldiers. That weapon never fired a high-explosive round, and even if it did, the caliber was way too small to create an explosion of such magnitude. The PTRS-41 fired a 14.5×114mm bullet designed for taking out early tanks and trucks.
The PTRS-41 anti-tank rifle fired by a Soviet soldier
Starring James Coburn as a battle-hardened German sergeant fighting Soviet attacks, this is a gritty, raw, and violent meditation on the horrors of war told from the German perspective. Apart from some discrepancies with some of the guns used in the film, Cross of Iron is a well-made anti-war message movie that depicts soldiers as ‘real men’ dreaming about surviving, getting home, and having sex.
Cross of Iron is, like all of Peckinpah's films, a story of men in conflict. But what he appreciates and advances so strongly is that manly men are not lone killing machines a la the modern action hero, nor are they the glassy eyed, po-faced victims of modern war films. Peckinpah's soldiers are engaged in a bromantic tragedy and the overall theme is one of humanist regret.
Peckinpah’s masterpiece has been applauded as much for its bold themes and nuanced story-telling as for its visual artistry. Orson Welles described it as the greatest war film ever made, while auteur Quentin Tarrantino cited it as the main inspiration behind his own coruscating Inglourious Basterds.