Director Sam Peckinpah switches from his trademark westerns such as The Wild Bunch (1969) to another kind of savagery – this time it’s the Germans in retreat on the Russian Front during World War II – and makes as graphic an antiwar film as anything since All Quiet on the Western Front.
In this adaptation of a book by Willi Heinrich (who actually served on the Eastern front in the 101st Jäger division), James Coburn is the disillusioned Rolf Steiner, a cynical and war-weary combat veteran of the Wehrmacht 17th Army sickened by slaughter and the double-dealings of officers such as the Prussian aristocrat with no battle experience Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell).
Stransky is assigned as the battalion leader at the Kuban bridgehead on the Taman Peninsula, Eastern Front, in 1943. He boasts to both Colonel Brandt (James Mason) and his adjutant, Captain Kiesel (David Warner), that he volunteered for the posting in Russia with the speciﬁc aim of earning the Iron Cross.
Upon their initial meeting, Stransky commands Sergeant Steiner to kill a young Russian prisoner in accordance with a standing order. Steiner refuses to shoot the prisoner, and as Stransky prepares to carry out the order himself, Corporal Schnurrbart (Fred Stillkrauth) steps in and saves the boy’s life.
Steiner then releases the young Russian prisoner, only to see the child disposed of by his own side.
Meanwhile, Lt. Meyer (Igor Galo), who commanded Steiner’s company, is killed during the counter-attack, while Stransky hides in a bunker, revealing his cowardice. Steiner sustains injuries while attempting to save a German soldier and is sent to a hospital to convalesce.
While at the hospital, Steiner sees visions of the dead, including the face of the Russian youth he released. Upon recovering, he is given the option to go on leave but chooses to rejoin his unit.
Reunited with his men, Steiner hears that Stransky has been taking credit for leading the counterattack, refusing to credit Meyer, and has consequently been nominated for the Iron Cross. Stransky named as witnesses Lt. Triebig (Roger Fritz), who he blackmailed with his knowledge of Triebig’s homosexuality, and Steiner.
Stransky implores Steiner to back up his story, but Steiner makes no promises.
Meanwhile, Stansky is told that his patrol must pull back but doesn’t let Steiner know, thus forsaking Steiner’s platoon to make their own way back to the German front lines.
Stransky deviously mentions to Triebig that Steiner and his men could be “mistaken” for Russian soldiers if they should choose to kill them. Triebig subsequently commands his troops to ﬁre upon the platoon. Only Steiner and two of his men survive.
Steiner kills Triebig and searches for Stransky while the Soviet forces unleash a forceful assault, and Brandt emboldens the troops into a counterattack and calls for the immediate evacuation of Kiesel.
Steiner locates Stransky, but decides to leave him alive, giving him a weapon to use in the coming battle so he can see “where the iron crosses grow”. Stransky rises to Steiner’s challenge and the pair go into battle.
The movie ends with Stransky failing to properly reload his weapon and being wounded by a Soviet soldier (Sweeney MacArthur), who looks similar to the young Russian released by Steiner at the beginning of the ﬁlm.
Stransky begs Steiner for assistance, and Steiner’s laughter carries viewers to the end credits
This Anglo-German production is bloody action, elegantly choreographed to chilling effect. The ﬁlm was mostly shot in northern Yugoslavia (present-day Slovenia) around Obrov and Zagreb and in Trieste, Italy, and Savudrija, Croatia. Interior shots were completed at Pinewood Studios in the UK.
Sergeant Rolf Steiner