During World War II, aristocratic German Captain Stransky (Schell) finagles a transfer from peaceful occupied France to the Russian Front. As he explains to his new commander, Colonel Brandt (Mason), he is determined to win the Iron Cross for bravery. Brandt can hardly conceal his contempt. Corporal, later Sergeant, Steiner (Coburn) is one of Stransky's men. A wily veteran, he and Stransky dislike each other from the start.
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When the Russians break through the German lines, a lieutenant leads a successful counterattack, but is killed. Stransky claims the credit for the operation. He blackmails Lieutenant Triebig into backing him up. Steiner, the only other credible witness, is badly wounded and sent to a hospital. While recuperating, he dallies with a beautiful nurse (Senta Berger), but decides to return to his men. Colonel Brandt is disappointed when he refuses to testify against Stransky; Steiner despises all officers equally.
Later, Stransky is ordered to pull his men back. He makes sure Steiner's unit is not notified. Steiner and his men manage to fight their way back. As they near the new German lines, they send word ahead that they are coming, but Stransky gets Triebig to have his men open fire. Only Steiner and a few others survive. After killing Triebig, Stransky confronts Stransky. Just then, the German defenses collapse in the face of a major Russian offensive. Steiner gives Stransky a weapon and contemptuously turns his back to him. His pride stung, Stransky refrains from shooting him and instead boasts, "I will show you how a true Prussian officer fights."
Best part of story, including ending:
It's a gritty, unromanticized war story, just what you'd expect from a Sam Peckinpah-directed movie.
Best scene in story:
At the end, when Stransky runs out of ammo, he doesn't know how to reload his submachine gun, causing Steiner to break out in laughter.
Opinion about the main character:
It's never explained why Steiner hates all officers, even the decent ones like Brandt.