If you have ever seen Sam Peckinpah's 1977 World War Two epic Cross of Iron
then, like me, you probably thought that it really didn't
need a sequel. Peckinpah had made his point very effectively. Sadly, the film's German co-producers thought differently and came up with what is effectively a name-only sequel in the form of 1979's Breakthrough
, (also known as Sergeant Steiner
). (Whilst Cross of Iron
performed poorly in the US on its original release, it had been a big hit in West Germany, leaving the German co-producers keen to cash in). I say name-only, but it does purport to open shortly after the events of the first film and features two of the main characters from Cross of Iron
. Unfortunately, these characters are played by different actors and are quite unrecognisable rom their earlier incarnations. A booze-raddled looking Richard Burton replaces James Coburn as Steiner and phones in his performance. He clearly doesn't want to be there and he delivers his lines with contempt, (which is fair enough, as the script is diabolical). Likewise, Helmut Griem is a poor substitute for Maximillian Schell as Steiner's nemesis Captain Stansky, turning him into a standard one-dimensional evil Nazi, (again, to be fair, the script doesn't give him much to work with). With the main characters effectively emasculated, the Pekinpah film's main driving dynamic - the conflict between the two and the ideologies they represent - is completely absent. The result is a listless narrative with no real drive or sense of direction. Consequently, the film lurches from one small scale set-piece to another, with various plot strands fizzling out before they can amount to anything.
The supporting cast, including Robert Mitchum as a US army Colonel (like Burton, he phones in his performance) who bizarrely seems to spend his time going, personally, behind enemy lines to reconnoitre their anti-tank capabilities, and Rod Steiger, (his performance oscillating wildly between Patton-like rants and Bradley-like sympathy) as an American General really don't help. Curd Jurgens is also on hand, to play yet another in his repertoire of German generals. Moreover, unlike the Pekinpah film, which was filmed in Yugoslavia and utilised large quantities of authentic World War Two equipment, including T-34 tanks, the sequel was filmed in Austria on tatty-looking sets, with Austrian army M-47s unconvincingly pretending to be Sherman tanks. As the latter observation indicates, Breakthrough
also shifts the action from the Eastern to the Western front. All of which undermines the film's quality compared to the original. The change in locale, for instance, results in the first film's grim battle for survival being replaced by a meandering and slow-paced plot which involves Steiner in the 'Generals Plot' to assassinate Hitler. Sadly, he is a minor player, sent by Jurgens to find sympathetic American officers to support the attempted coup, and most of the interesting action - the failed assassination attempt and the consequent reprisals against the plotters - happens off-screen. The fact that, unlike Coburn's Steiner, Burton's Steiner frequently appears peripheral to the main action, is one of Breakthrough
's major flaws.
But the film's biggest problem - aside from a wildly inappropriate musical score - is the fact that it looks so cheaply made. Most of the budget seems to have been spent on hiring the main stars, resulting in the use of stock footage for many of its action 'highlights'. The impressive-looking opening, over which the main titles unfurl, featuring the German army retreating across a snowscape, complete with Tiger tanks and other heavy equipment, is actually a sequence from the Yugoslav war epic The Battle of Neretva
. This is followed by a lengthy stretch of battle footage from Cross of Iron
, (which in no way matches the preceding footage). Worst of all, the D-Day landings are represented by stock footage from Anzio
(which, coincidentally, also featured Robert Mitchum) and The Battle of Britain
. The latter piece of footage is utterly inept in its use, featuring what are quite clearly German Heinkel bombers in Luftwaffe colours, to represent Allied aircraft. The only major action sequence filmed specifically for the film comes at the climax with the US armoured assault on the German-held town. But even this is dull and repetitive. Which shouldn't be surprising. Even Pekinpah would have been hard-pressed to make something out of these ingredients, so his successor, Andrew V McClaglan, an experienced director of action movies, westerns and TV episodes, didn't really stand a chance.
Labels: Forgotten Films