19 February 2011

Stalingrad vs Cross of Iron [War movies part 1]

Last night I rewatched both Stalingrad and Cross of Iron - both movies were among the first in my DVD collection many years ago , and I had not seen them in a while. Coincidently both movies are about the Eastern front, and takes place roughly a couple of months apart during 1943.

I had not planned on doing this but after last night I think I'll have to make a comparison between German movies about WW2 and the Hollywood version of the subject. So this will be a 3 part weekly deal where I compare movies that are similar to each other.

Stalingrad compared to Cross of Iron
Das Boot compared to U-571
Der Untergang compared to.... well Inglorious Basterds (I will explain why in part 3).

Before I go on, these comparisons and reviews will be done from the heart - meaning there will be slight spoilers and my honest opinion expressed in its raw form. Should you be offended by it or think otherwise - this is only what I think.

I do hope however that after you have seen all these movies you will pretty much agree with me on that the Germans are exceptional filmmakers when it comes to capturing the madness of war in a realistic and gritty way.


Stalingrad vs Cross of Iron

I was pretty much overwhelmed last night after having finished watching both movies. Overwhelmed by the fantastic movie that was Stalingrad and what garbage Cross of Iron was. It had been a couple of years since I had watched either so I did not remember much of the plot beyond the general framework.

Stalingrad is about a German Sturmbattalion sent to Stalingrad and chronicles the final days of their suffering in the freezing cold, with dirt, starvation, madness and suffering going on all around them.

Cross of Iron is a movie that is all over the place, but I guess it centers around corporal Steiner and his reconnaissance  platoon but the main plot is also about captain Stransky who voluntarily transferred to the Eastern front in order to earn himself a Iron Cross.

So while Stalingrad has a strong theme of anti war without being on the nose every 4 seconds and being about the wish of going home in one piece as the front collapses - Cross of Iron is about a douchebag who whines about a medal which he must earn or else he will be ridiculed at home by his upper class family and friends.

What really triggered me to do this review was the IMDB score of 7.5 which both movies share and the ignorant comments and descriptions on the Cross of Iron board calling it a fantastic movie and one of the best war movies EVER!

I’m a firm believer of the idea that if you have an opening theme song and credits sequence the quality of that will reflect upon the remainder of the movie. It tells you what kind of thing you’re about to watch. Stalingrad opens with a haunting tune, which carries a seriousness and melancholy. Cross of Iron opens up with an artsy freeze frame montage of WW2 material showing happy Nazis and some kind of cheery Hitler Youth song being sung by children. And of course even the goddamn intro credits for Cross of Iron got to have an explosion in them. It’s like a failed Sergio Leone intro sequence made by amateur copycats.

Furthermore you instantly notice one other important difference – Stalingrad is a German movie, so they speak German. Cross of Iron is filled with “Germans” speaking the queen’s English – and normally I don’t care what language a movie is in but English speaking German soldiers is the most silly thing  on film, and it rarely works well. And neither do the actors in Cross of Iron look especially German either. They look like dirty bums, even when covered in dirt and freezing their asses off swept in blankets the soldiers in Stalingrad look like Germans. It’s also about the details such as haircuts.  Stalingrad gets it, whereas Cross of Iron is populated by officers who look like a Oasis cover band members stuck in a trench without soap and water for 4 months. And you might think “hey man, knock it off – those guys have been in those muddy trenches and that look is authentic!”, well why is it that only a FEW of the Germans in  Cross of Iron insist upon looking like dirty hobos while the majority retains some sort of realistic cleanliness. If you are going to make the staff officers look as if they’ve been partying on crack cocaine for 4 days straight and have slept in their own vomit – then surely that look should apply to the entire company?

Another thing that makes Cross of Iron a matinee style of adventure is the silly ricochet sound when machineguns fire. You know, that stock sound from hell that sounds like it should belong in the Cayote & The Road runner cartoon. Way to break the illusion of a firing MG42. So, the haircuts, the language, looks and sounds are shit in Cross of Iron. Surely it has to have some redeeming qualities? That is true, and you can see traces of it in various short scenes. There is a scene where corporal Steiner ends up in a German army hospital and a German General or something comes for a visit and wants to shake the hand of one of the patients – who is missing both hands.  The actor playing corporal Steiner is also good, and so is the cast of his platoon. It’s not their fault the movie sucks, it the screenplay.

Because this movie does not know what it wants to be. It opens up with a ridiculous sequence where Steiner is described as some sort of legend by the high ranking officers, “he does what he wants but my God is he good or what?!” kind a deal. The movie also uses slow motion effects for some reason, and the sequences that are used for the slow motion does not even warrant the use of that effect. Steiner empties his MP40 into a bunch of Russian soldier * slow motion effect of him throwing an empty clip at the ground *. Leaves you wondering what the purpose of that was, it also mixes comedy, tired and weak anti-war messages, typical Hollywood WW2 heroics and lame story.

The main villain on Cross of Iron, captain Stransky is supposed to be the main villain but comes of like a twerp and is used for comic relief – he even looks funny when he’s just standing around. There is one scene where he hides under a small table when the Soviets are shelling his position, another scene he runs around doing nonsensical shit which takes the seriousness out of the fact that men around him are being blown to pieces by Soviet artillery. And the movie ending, don’t even get me started. My reaction was literally “What the fuck kind of ending is that?!” , not only does it not make any sense but it also feels as if there was 5-10 minutes missing? And of course that silly Hitler Youth song at the end, God forbid if you had repressed it in your memory that you forget about it altogether.

Stalingrad, it is a far superior movie. Recap on the good score, accurate language and haircuts – the movie also has a more realistic tone. There is no one giving you moral stories that are on the nose, when soldiers are tired and get mental breakdowns because of the war and the slaughter going on around them it is believable. In Cross of Iron you have pretty much everyone whining and nagging all the time but it feels forced, fake and corny most of the time. The characters in Stalingrad are also more believable, and you can feel their panic during firefights and the cold when they later start freezing to death. The main villain if you like is unlike Stransky in Cross of Iron a proper asshole without any comical qualities to his person.

Even the action sequences feel authentic and not that old fashioned Hollywood style “this is the main character so he won’t die”-heroics.  The movie does a fantastic job of capturing the freezing cold winter of Soviet Russia and features many scenes during the second half that does a great job of capturing that total defeat and death of the 6th army. And the ending, I won’t spoil it or hype it – let’s just say it is better than the Cross of Iron ending.

If you want to see an “OK” Hollywood style war movie as they were used to be made, then watch Cross of Iron. If you want to see a really good movie about WW2 from the German perspective I really recommend Stalingrad. I hope you can tell the movies apart from the pictures attached to this post.

I would rate Cross of Iron 6/10, it has entertainment value. But a lot of flaws.
Stalingrad is a solid 8.5/10 in my opinion.

Next week, Das Boot vs U-571


  1. Can´t agree more. Stalingrad is on of the best warmovies and is a masterpiece with it realism. Sadly very few movies (specially ww2) movies comes close to that and those that does that, mostly germans too.

    But I do know some russian movies (or more to the point have been told) that also are very good, sadly few of them ever makes it to our screens.


  2. I think the problem back in those days of Cross of Iron was that they saw WW2 as just another fun theme to create an action movie around. Resulting in numerous pretty bad war movies - or rather adventure movies in WW2 setting with a not so serious or realistic approach. I can appreciate those kind of movies too, like Kelly's Heroes, Where eagles dare and Dirty Dozen. They are fun and entertaining.

    But start to compare them to serious work like Stalingrad or Downfall/Der Untergang or the fantastic Das Boot they look like kids movies. The German movies don't glorify anything, they have superb atmosphere and the music score often sends shivers down your spine.

    Thinking hard about good "old" WW2 movies I can only come up with A Bridge too far as one I would recommend, the Thin Red Line is OK as well. Saving Private Ryan would probably be be the top ranking WW2 movie made in the US, followed by the TV show Band of Brothers.

    Something that really amazes me though is, Hollywood can make fantastic movies about the Vietnam war, the Platoon, Born on 4th of July, Full Metal Jacket, Tigerland and Deer Hunter for instance (hell even Rambo 1 has it's moments), I can't understand why they treat WW2 less seriously.

  3. After buying a boat load of 2nd hand BTD Russians a few months ago, I watched both movies on YouTube. I gave up on Cross of Iron. The 'gay' angle grew tiresome and forced. The plot was predicable. Was anyone shocked that the moment the Russian kid is sent back to his attacking Russians that they would be shot within 3 seconds, thinking he was German? How 'ironic'! How lame.

    Stalingrad was far superior and put my rusty German to good use. It made me very uncomfortable for a long time, making me wonder why the heck did I buy Eastern front figures!?! Call of Duty 2 didn't look anything like this movie! This movie was the main reason why I'll be gaming small villages instead. (Ok, that and making a Stalingrad table would take too much time and money.)

    Your reviews are spot on! Keep up the straight talk!

  4. Must say I agree with your thoughts overall. I think it's also important to consider the market these movies were made for. Hollywood movies are made as (you so rightly point out) an action movie in a different setting. Having the actors all speaking german then necessitates all the sub titles which stopped people watching the hero do his stuff. I suspect that at the time they were made, people may not have wanted to be reminded of the true horrors of war but want to see 'heroes' in action and 'good triumphing over evil' in one form or the other. The unfortunate side effect is a sanitised view seen through the Hollywood lens.

    I have only seen Stalingrad once and that was many years ago but I was blown away by the realism it managed to infuse into the experience. Before I saw that, my only experience of war films had been the Hollywood genre.

  5. I think you're very kind to give Cross of Iron as many stars as you did! It was just too message-y. The characters were boring. Some of the action scenes were decent. The movie has nothing on Stalingrad. And please help me scrub the German kids singing out of my brain....

  6. First, Cross of Iron is directed by Sam Peckinpah, great director http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001603/ and this is 35 years old movie. Second, this movie sets the standard for the next generation war movies. It was revolutionary war movie in that time. Apocalypse Now was finished two years later. You just can not compare this two movies because Joseph Vilsmaier was under the influence of Sam Peckinpah.
    Cross of Iron is not best movie of Sam Peckinpah, but all his movies are masterpieces.

    1. I agree with this, it's not fair to compare these two movies. Peckinpah has his own style, which is more than can be said of most directors today, and as said, if you wanna compare it to a movie, compare it to Kelly's Heroes or Where Eagles Dare. Then again I noticed you did a comparison on U-571 and Das Boot...

    2. The basis of these comparisons seems to merely revolve around their theater of war.

  7. Don’t look at the finger, look at the moon

  8. I don't think its a fair comparison. In respect to the progression of cinema, you maybe should have pitted it against A Bridge too far.
    For starts, there is a good 16 year divide. Movies standards in style and authenticity had progressed significantly.
    I do think cross of iron is a great film. Probably a little dated, the slow motion effect certainly is. Overall, It has some fantastic battle sequences, memorable dialogue, and some fantastic charters (especially Mason and Warner). A totally out of the box movie, with a spaghetti western level of cynicism, realism and fantasy. A rock and roll war movie.
    All I can say for Stalingrad is that the Germans make their movies like they make their cars. Maybe Taviosta (winter war) would have made a good comparison.
    I do think that foreign language films have the advantage of being able to hide their less talented actors, and because you are reading(subtitles) their dialogue, they can come across as being more dignified and convincing.

  9. Actually, Cross of Iron is a German movie too. It was made in both languages. The fact that you only saw the English language version before making your comparison speaks volumes.

    As others have said, Cross of Iron was made in another time - so yours is a completely unfair comparison. For the standards of its time, it's a masterpiece, and it's incredible that it's so good considering that, at the time, the director was mentally crippled by alcoholism.

    Personally, I think Cross of Iron is a much more effective movie. Stalingrad may get the details right, but it is lacking in terms of pacing, acting and character development. To be honest, I found it boring.

  10. you are way off the mark.... Obviously you don't get the symbolism in cross of iron. the song at the start is not a hiyler youth song

  11. Why you even compare these movies? They are made in different times and Cross of Iron was rarity to be made those days. Noone else would have made movie "heroes" from german side pow.

    Stalingrad maybe slightly better as war movie, but as a whole Cross of Iron stands it ground. Sam Peckinpah is unique director and you can see him on this one. I watched this movie late 80s and i think its my favourite among these two.

  12. Firstly: I can't agree at all with the assessment of Cross of Iron's opening. It was an excellently crafted surreal montage that blends both music/sound and picture into a disturbing but intriguing opening sequence. It really sets up the film well and it's superior to many of these boring black and white text credit sequences at the beginning of films. The music was also well blended and creates a good atmosphere for the film.
    Secondly: Captain Stransky is the antagonist in the film so yes he is annoying that's the point. Also what you said about the film's main subject matter is false. It's mainly about Colenel Steiner and his survival and conflict with Stransky.
    Thirdly: We agree that films with English language that are supposed to be foreign are lazy in this respect so that's probably a point to Stalingrad. Although i don't consider it that much of an issue. Enemy at the Gates is not a terrible film because it had British accents.
    Fourth: The music is appropriate in Cross of Iron. A Hitler youth song is both poignant and makes a lot of sense in the context of a German perspective anti-war film.
    Fifth: The battle scenes are particularly good. There are a few ways of doing a good battle scene and Cross of Iron definitely does it effectively with it's fast paced editing. It works in the context of the film and is a refreshing departure from a lot of other war films that have very static battle scenes despite trying to convey intensity. The battle scenes and slow motion are good at depicting chaotic things happening all at once. That is also what is great about the final scene of The Wild Bunch (1969) also a Peckinpah film. If you don't like that then you don't know a good battle scene when you see one.
    Sixth: The characters are strong particularly the general played by James Mason who is tidily dressed by the way and is a realistic character. Stransky is once again supposed to be an asshole and is very well played by Max Schell.
    Seventh: Stalingrad is not a far superior film. It was from what I remember a somewhat boring. Not to mention it had a "ridiculous" end scene as well with a woman tied to a bed who was raped and having an emotive conversation with a soldier. How's that for forced? Let's Just compare the factory battle scene in Stalingrad with that In Cross of Iron. In Cross of Iron the factory scene is well directed, aimed and well choreographed. In Stalingrad it's a confused mess of over dramatic acting where soldiers yell at each other in monologue and scream when they get shot like they're in a 1960s movies except it came out in 1993! In Cross of Iron people just get hammered and fall to the ground and the scene keeps going. And that came out in 1977! How is Stalingrad "superior?"

    1. In the end I would say if you want to see a disturbing and entertaining war film that actually has a lot of war scenes in it (unlike a lot of the films in that era that would get caught up in romantic plot) see Cross of Iron. If you want a realistically dressed cast being occasionally melodramatic but in an overall boring film that sometimes lacks panache see Stalingrad. Peckinpah's originality and ultra-violence certainly bring more to the table then Stalingrad.
      P.S: Also the song at the start and end is not a Hitler youth song. It's "little Hans" a German folk song from the 19th century. It's about a boy who goes away and come back as a man which shows the thematic depth of the film in elation to war. Maybe that's pushing it but the film is still great for other reasons.

  13. I disagree with your comments. Cross of Iron is a movie with a great intro, it shows the deams about war, how war is glorified and depicted by war-mongers as a great and glorious thing. But the truth is the opposite. If you could understand the lyrics, you would get the point you are losing.
    It is not about a man looking for a medal. It is about a big group of men suffering in a terrible war and one coward that is trying to benefit from war.
    Stalingrad is a great movie, but you have made up a war between the two movies, you chose a side and you made it the good one and Cross of Iron the bad side. It was not necessary at all.
    Sorry for my English, it is not my mothertongue.


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