May, 1944. As German forces retreat from the eastern front, hardened combat veteran Sergeant Steiner (Richard Burton), acting on the orders of his old adversary, Major Stransky (Helmut Griem), heads a mission to destroy a tunnel before it is breached by the enemy. Through no fault of his own, they fail but witnessing so much unnecessary death has Steiner convinced the war is all but lost. After a short furlough in Paris, he rejoins the army at the western front where he is recruited for a very secret assignment. It happens the similarly disenchanted General Hofmann (Curd Jürgens) is involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler. At his behest Steiner passes the message on to American Colonel Rogers (Robert Mitchum) that upon the Führer's death the German army will negotiate a truce. Rogers relays the message to his superiors hoping to ensure a ceasefire, but then the assassination fails.
Also known as Steiner: Das Eiserne Kreuz Teil II or plain old Sergeant Steiner, Breakthrough was the sequel to Cross of Iron (1977). Set on the Russian front, Sam Peckinpah's original war movie adopted the unusual and, at the time, controversial perspective of the German side in World War II. The film was poorly received in America, where by then Peckinpah's reputation was on the wane, yet proved an enormous hit in Germany. Hence German backers led by exploitation movie mogul Wolf C. Hartwig hired Andrew V. McLaglen, another western turned war film specialist albeit with a radically different style, to direct the sequel. Given McLaglen had only recently made an imitation Peckinpah western in The Last Hard Men (1976) co-starring Cross of Iron's lead actor James Coburn, sequelizing an actual Peckinpah movie must have seemed like the next logical step. Of course it should come as no surprise that despite aping the grimy mud, blood and guts realism of Peckinpah's film, McLaglen musters not one ounce of his psychological depth, philosophical angst or poetic surrealist carnage.
Whereas Peckinpah sought to engage the audience in the plight of the doomed, conflicted, war-weary German soldiers, Breakthrough exudes the emotional detachment of your average nuts-and-bolts, spectacle driven war adventure. The plot has a lot of promise sadly squandered by slack direction and a sloppy script which clumsily recycles elements that worked first time around. McLaglen had access to resources Peckinpah was denied and though his battle scenes are nowhere as visceral throws in plenty of gunfire, explosions and big scale action. Which would be fine were the film better paced and not borderline incoherent. Shoddy editing with lots of over-dubs suggest this was hastily re-assembled in post-production where characters and sub-plots fell by the wayside. There are times when Breakthrough comes across like three different war films stitched together by a blind monkey. At one point it briefly becomes "Sergeant Steiner Takes a Holiday" as while in Paris he wines, dines and sleeps with Stransky's French girlfriend who is never mentioned again.
Not helping matters is the indifferent presence of Richard Burton, sadly not at his best. Reunited with McLaglen after The Wild Geese (1978), Burton felt he was miscast and sneers his dialogue having seemingly given up trying to engage viewers at all. On the American side, Robert Mitchum just about gets by on his trademark laconic cool though he too flirts with boredom, sleepwalking through dull confrontations with scenery-chewing eccentric General Webster (Rod Steiger) though he at least has a tragicomic double act going on with Michael Parks as wisecracking Sergeant Anderson. With so much lethargy on screen the underlining moral message ends up mistranslated. Not so much "war is hell" as man, war is a drag. At least McLaglen wrings a few drops of suspense from the finale that has Rogers and Anderson race into enemy territory to prevent bloodshed while Steiner grapples with the ever ambitious Stransky (still vying for his iron cross, having learned nothing from back when he was portrayed by Maximilian Schell) who schemes to literally blow their one chance at peace. The lead anti-hero's outrage over Stransky's use of innocent civilians to mask a deadly trap is one area where the sequel stays true to the original themes, but again things get muddled when Steiner ends up simultaneously gunning down Americans while fighting to save their lives. Also worth singling out for disdain is the bizarre score by Peter Thomas that sounds like a space age easy listening track from a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. What was going on there?