As World War II rages on along the Eastern Front, an aristocratic German officer sets his sights on Germany’s highest honor, the Iron Cross. His ambition puts him at odds with his commanders, his men and, perhaps most-importantly, his sergeant.
Maximiliam Schell is Captain Stransky, a Prussian aristocrat who gets himself transferred from an easy assignment in Paris to the Eastern Front all for the purpose of getting himself the honor of the Iron Cross. James Coburn is Corporal (quickly promoted to Sergeant) Steiner, a battle-hardened leader of men who would just as soon get back to his life. Steiner, as well as Colonel Brandt (James Mason) have already realized that Germany is bound to lose this war, but still they must trudge on. Neither has time for Stransky’s ambition, but while Brandt actively wants to deny him the honor, leading an investigation into the events of a particular firefight that Stransky wishes to use to cement his claim for the Iron Cross, Steiner has no interest in the politics of it and sees the pragmatism in just letting Stransky have his cheap bauble, so he’ll go back to Paris. Ultimately, Stransky forces Steiner to fight one time too many to save his men.
This movie is a split from the norm in that it tells the story from the German perspective and still makes you empathize with Steiner and his men. In its depiction of war and the men who fight, it paves the way for such films as “Platoon” – most of these men would rather not be there and war truly is an ugly thing. Coburn is great as the pragmatic Steiner, trying to keep his unit together in the face of an un-winable war against a neverending line of enemies, including his own commander. Mason is brilliant as the war weary colonel, riding out this commission, looking both to rebuilding his home after a loss which he now sees as inevitable and, as he tells his aide, Captain Kiesel (David Warner), marking time in preparing for the next war. Schell is perfectly loathsome as a man whose bravery doesn’t nearly equal his ambition and Warner does a profound job of skulking about in the shadows, numbing himself to the hell he wakes up to each day.
The movie has a few overly artsy moments, with a dream sequence when Steiner is recovering in an army hospital, for instance, but director Sam Peckinpah keeps things moving for the most part. In the buildup to the finale, he has you on the edge of your seat praying for a these soldiers to survive an ill-fated encounter rather than become collateral victims to one man’s dreams of glory – almost without realizing that you’re rooting for the Germans. A masterful bit of storytelling, indeed.