Cross of Iron (1978)

Composed by Ernest Gold

Cross of Iron is a dark World War II film directed by Sam Peckinpah. Cross of Iron has received attention as one of the few Hollywood films to follow a group of German soldiers, and also one of the few to take place on the Russian front. The plot sees Sergeant Rolf Steiner (James Coburn) butt heads with the arrogant and aristocratic Prussian Captain Stransky (Maximillian Schell). Stransky is out for an Iron Cross and is willing to risk his men’s lives to get it. A major Soviet offensive sees Steiner and his platoon stranded in enemy territory and they have to take a journey to make it back to their unit. Cross of Iron is a decent flick. Despite what was at the time an original WWII setting, it doesn’t have much meat to offer in terms of characterization and messages. The ending, however, has some wonderful dark humor that displays the madness of war. Composer Ernest Gold offered a bittersweet war score.

Gold introduces the main melody in “Steiner’s Theme.” Steiner’s theme does not aim for heroism, nor does it suggest the military aggression of the German Wehrmacht. It is rather a morose piece which underscores the plight of the German rank-and-file in the most horrid front of their war.  “Main Title” stars a children’s choir. They sing a classic German folk song, “Hanschen Klein.” These innocent passages are used for irony, playing over Nazi imagery and war footage. Gold further inserts portions of heroic martial music (perhaps an actual snippet of a Wehrmacht tune?) to further underscore the high hopes Germany had when embarking on its conquest of the East.

“Mikael” is a sad piece on accordion for a Russian boy caught up in the war. “Steiner’s Report” is a darker take on the already downbeat Steiner’s theme. “Captain Stransky” starts off as a horror cue with building swirling strings. It settles into dark underscore. The tension rises only to turn into a subdued but triumphal statement of the martial music from the opening credits (1:05). “Mikael’s Death” is a strained version of Steiner’s theme. Some anonymous dark music leads to a more romantic iteration of the same theme and a Slavic folk melody (the Russian motif). The track ends on a perilous note. “The Terrace” is a brief waltz which grows discordant towards the end. Gold kicks off “Memories and Hallucinations” with a harmonica. Over 30 seconds in a choir and shivering strings work together to create a haunting atmosphere.

“Eva” by contrast is a romantic cue and offers a more classically lush melody. The war is still there, however, and the melody morphs into Steiner’s theme. “Return to the Front” is yet another bittersweet cue. A jaunty melody comes in, but is quickly subsumed by more dark underscore. “I Hate All Officers” is another showcase of Steiner’s theme. Tensions between the sergeant and his superiors are further represented by a spurt of rising strings over a minute in. “The Bridge House” is a suspenseful piece with the Russian motif. “The Massacre” is the longest track at over four minutes. Bitter strings and an intermittent snare drum beat build to more romantic but still downbeat strings. At 2:16 a single organ note kicks off the most dramatic rendition of Steiner’s theme. “Last Confrontation” continues Steiner’s theme in lamenting fashion following a horrifying incident. “Finale and End Credits” brings everything full circle with “Hanschen Klein” and a final reprise of Steiner’s theme.

Ernest Gold’s Cross of Iron is a tragic war score that effectively conveys loss and the dark side of human nature. It’s got a strong main theme, but the secondary motifs could use more integration, especially the martial Iron Cross theme. At 40 minutes long and spread over 15 tracks, none of the music overstays its welcome and makes for a nice quick listen. It’s a solid score and the use of “Hanschen Klein” in the opening and closing acts is a nice touch.

Rating: 7/10

Tracklisting

  1. Steiner’s Theme (2:43)
  2. Main Title (4:01)
  3. Mikael (1:26)
  4. Steiner’s Report (2:27)
  5. Captain Stransky (2:27)
  6. Mikael’s Death (2:40)
  7. The Terrace (1:03)
  8. Memories and Hallucinations (2:49)
  9. Eva (3:31)
  10. Return to the Front (2:42)
  11. I Hate All Officers (3:07)
  12. The Bridge House (2:27)
  13. The Massacre (4:08)
  14. Last Confrontation (1:41)
  15. Finale and End Credits (2:37)

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