Cross of Iron

By Scott Parrino 03 Jul 2003 0

A 'Saving Private Ryan' for the German Army

Most of you are familiar with the Steven Spielberg film "Saving Private Ryan" and the German film "Stalingrad." Both of these works depict the horror and senselessness of war vividly. Yet both of these films were predated by a film that was the first to put a face on the German soldier in World War II, an "All Quiet on the Western Front" for the WWII landser, "Cross of Iron".

James Coburn as Sergeant Rolf Steiner.

Based on a novel by Willi Heinrich, Sam Peckinpah took the story of a platoon of landsers on the Eastern Front and turned it into a strong anti-war film. With James Coburn in the lead, the film brought the words of Heinrich alive in an unprecedented manner of authenticity and made the story even more powerful by changing the sequence of events to create a shattering and unforgettable climax.

Heinrich's novel is a strong and chilling portrayal of combat on the Eastern Front during 1943, focusing on a platoon of the 101 Jaeger Division that had been isolated with the rest of the 17th Army in the Taman Peninsula in a position named the Gotenkopf or Goths Head. This position was the brainchild of Adolf Hitler who, in an attempt to preserve some of the gains made following the disaster of Stalingrad, ordered Army Group A to establish a bridgehead to be used as a springboard for the recapture of the Caucasus region in the summer of 1943. The position was anchored at Novorosyssk in the south and centered on the town of Krymskaja then bent to the northwest to the Sea of Azov. Isolated from the rest of the Eastern Front, Army Group A spent the rest of the year in this backwater before withdrawing into the Crimea in October 1943, long after the initiative had passed from the Germans.

Heinrich's writing effectively portrays the brutal and callous nature of the war for the average landser. This excerpt of Schnurrbart contemplating the death of "Professor" Dorn, who was just about to go home for officer training when he was killed by a mortar round is a good example of Heinrich's ability to portray the hopelessness of the situation:

"His eyes rested on the boots. German army boots, size 10. He suddenly recalled that these were the boots of a man who had joined the company shortly after Dorn, and had died under a hail of machine-gun bullets. Dorn, who had been equipped with uncomfortable clodhoppers, had asked Fetscher for the boots, then relatively new. The nails had since become worn down and the soles were full of holes. What a long way those boots had come since their nails first rang challengingly on the cobblestone street of a small Czech town and the March sun was reflected in the high polish of the uppers. Schnurrbart knew all the paths they had walked. They had trodden the clean highways of Slovakia, the sandy paths of Poland, the corduroy roads of the Ukraine, the crushed flowers of the steppes, the lonely forest paths of the Caucasus. In light and dark, on hills and valleys, over land and water. And the road had always been there. Dust and searing heat had dried the leather and cracked it. The boots had slogged through rain and bottomless swamps, through cold and deep snow. With a kind of insane clarity Schnurrbart calculated: perhaps six million footsteps lay behind them. Now they had reached their final destination and were resting, unsightly, used up, worthless, with the warm sun beating down on the cracked leather. They lay waiting patiently, patient as the hide of which they were made. Schnurrbart suddenly became aware of the tears streaming down his face. Now the soldier Dorn had left his boots and his body behind." (p. 250)

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