Two soldiers brought together by war but separated by birthright: one's honor forged by sacrifice and the other's honor sacrificed upon an iron cross. Sam Peckinpah's only war film is more than an orgy of shrapnel and bloodshed, it is an incisive characterization of the German soldiers fighting for God and country, men sunk in the misery of a failed campaign who curse their Nazi übermensch yet stand up for one another. Peckinpah transcends cliché to present the Axis side of the Second World War that is not much different than our own: men fight and die while the generals dictate murderous doctrine.
The opening credit montage of black and white stock war footage is juxtaposed with German children chanting a playful rhyme, testimony to the virulent indoctrination of Hitler Youth who grow into violent men. Peckinpah then cuts in narrative scenes while adding blood red color to the swastika, triumphantly carried in Romanesque parades. Soon, we're on the eastern Front with a rag-tag band of German soldiers ready to ambush a Russian artillery unit. After a fierce firefight, they capture a young boy and bring him back to their bunker. Peckinpah confounds expectations in the first act as he leads the story towards melodrama, tough soldiers bonding with an enemy child, and tears it apart with the shrapnel of irony: the boy is released and shot by his own troops. All sentimentality is gone and the film thrusts each character (and the audience) into senseless and explosive vignettes that begin to form a corpus delecti.
The conflict involves much more than enemy soldiers: this is about class warfare. Sgt. Steiner is an elementary warrior whose victories are written upon his sunken visage, a face hollowed out from the ravages of combat, as if he is being eaten from the inside by virus. He has earned his Iron Cross by luck and leadership, sharpened like a steel bayonet in the bloody trenches. He is contrasted with Capt. Stransky, a Prussian noble whose milk fed life is one of entitlement without honor or merit. He demands a medal to further his military career and social standing, his manhood like a decoration to be flaunted. Through error and trial Stransky and Steiner carry out their orders, while one is action the other stagnation. Sgt. Steiner is the one who leads Capt. Stransky into the breach, towards certain death, and into the fertile fields where the iron crosses grow.
Final Grade: (B+)