"Cross of Iron," a peculiarly pointess, expendale new action film from Sam Peckinpah, fades out as the protagonist, a Wehrmacht sergeant delayed by James Coburn, utters a profanr what's-the-use expletive.

Under the circumstances, one can't resist interpreting the remark as a parting confession of failure by the filmmaker. It could easily summerize the frustration and bafflement audiences are likely to feel. If Peckinpah had something specific in mind when the began this project, an international co-production shot in Yugoslavia, he has lost the train of thought somewhere along the line.

Perhaps the equivocal fog surrounding "Cross of Iron," now at several area theaters would lift after one consulted the original source, a novel by Willi Heinrich published about 20 years ago. Called "The Patient Flesh" in German and "Cross of Iron" in English translation, the book seems to be recalled most vividly for the ferocity and apparent authenticity of its war scenes. The story is set on the Eastern Front during the German retreat from Russia in 1943. Heinrich himself served as an infantryman in this bitter theater of combat.

While praising Heinrich for overwhelming descriptive powers, several reviewers seemed to find the book a little underwhelming on the philosophical side. Maybe the equivocation isn't solely Peckinpah's, but it was probably exaggerated by his distinctively American romanticism and obsessiveness.

The film never closes a credibility gap deriving from the casting of actors like Coburn and David Warner as Germans. Even James Mason, who can draw on the substantial credit of his performances in films like "The Desert Fox" and "The Man Between," and the Swiss Maximilian Schell, who played a similar role 20 years ago in "The Young Lions," seem incongruous in German uniform. Senta Berger, who is Austrian, makes a brief appearance in an ineffectual romantic interlude with the wounded Coburn, but she is a recollection from an earlier Peckinpah film, "Major Dundee," where she provided temporary solace to Charlton Heston. (KEY OFF)(KEYWORD) deep source of confusion and unreality may originate in the way Peckinpah superimposes his perceptions of martial camaraderie and honor onto the hard-bitten warriors of a different country, culture and epoch.Despite the use of documentary montages at the beginning and end of the film, "Cross of Iron" never establishes a compelling sense of period.

The central conflict is a personality clash between Coburn, the leader of a tough reconnaissance platoon whose feasts of daring have become a legend, and Schell, a newly arrived officer with fatuous visions of glory. Their animosity seems to derive from a strictly professional jealousy that has no bearing on the political or historical causes of the war itself.

Coburn's Sgt. Steiner detests Schell's Capt. Stransky because he's not only a shameless careerist but also an officer, and an officer from the Prussian aristocracy at that Stransky views Steiner accurately as an obstacle to his own self-aggrandizement. Neither man has Nazi sympathies, so the conflict has no political resonance. Steiner's apparent feeling that it's the German officer class that makes war unliveable seems a rather shortsighted outlook on World War II, to put it mildly.

The expected personal showdown between Steiner and Stransky, who has been responsible for the near annihilation of Steiner's platoon, fizzles out in a denouncement that seems to have them reaching some kind of inexplicable understanding. When last seen, they are retreating together under a Red Army attack.

If a devastating irony was intended, Peckinpah has utterly neglected to provide a clue toward its meaning. There is never the slightest reason to suppose that the Coburn and Schell characters are essentially soul mates, like the Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott characters in "Ride the High Country," the Charlton Heston and Richard Harris characters in "Major Dundee" or the William Holden and Robert Ryan characters in "The Wild Bunch." Not even necessity justifies Steiner and Stransky emerging as strange bedfellows.

It was probably only a matter of time before Peckinpah located his men at arms in World War II, but the seems to have wandered he onto the wrong front on the wrong side of the lines. Some of the combat sequences reveal his distinctively stunning, lyrical aptitude for violence, but they lack dramatic coordination and momentum. It's as if we were watching rushes that haven't been integrated into a finished film.

Ultimately, the screenplay seems to lack a structure that can rationalize either the action scenes or dramatic scenes. The movie alternates between combat and draggy, perfunctory interludes of philosophizing and platitudinizing down in the bunkers. The juxta-positions are occasionally ludicrous, evoking a kind of Upstairs and Downstairs of the Eastern Front effect. Some of this cross-cutting between simultaneous actions above ground and underground during pitched battles is weirdly - and one must assume unintentionally - reminiscent of the calculated satiric confusion at the end of The Marx Brothers' "Duck Soup."

Peckinpah's last two films, "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" and "The Killer Elite," had their obscurities, but they also had a sardonic personal tone and black comedy subtext that one could connect with. "Cross of Iron" is a hopelessly muddled variation on Peckinpah themes. His signals are often a little fuzzy but on this occasion one can't discern a text, a subtext or even an intriguing private code.