This is another in my series informing you about how war movies differ from their source material. I also take the liberty of comparing the two. I have a belief that a movie should be better than the novel it is based on and most war movies are. The screenwriter has the advantage of having the book as his foundation and he can make improvements to the plot and make it more entertaining. The disadvantage is that the movie can not go into the detail that a book can. I am mainly arguing that movies should be more entertaining than the novel. If you read on, be aware that I am assuming two things. One, you have seen the movie already. Two, you are not planning on reading the book, so you don’t care about spoilers. I hope what you do care about is how the book differs from the movie and which is better, in my opinion.
“Cross of Iron” is a war movie directed by Sam Peckinpah. It is set on the Eastern Front in WWII. A platoon led by a Sgt. Steiner (James Coburn) is part of the perimeter defense of a German salient that is threatened by superior Red Army forces. Steiner is a great soldier, but is anti-authority and cynical about the war and the army. His new company commander Capt. Stransky (Maximilian Schell) has been transferred to Russia so he can win an Iron Cross. He is a martinet who realizes Steiner will be a thorn in his side and Stransky is determined to eliminate Steiner as an obstacle to his medal. Steiner and his men have to go on a trek behind enemy lines to get back to their lines after they are left behind in the army’s withdrawal. The movie was based on the novel The Willing Flesh by Willi Heinrich. Heinrich served on the Eastern Front and was wounded five times. The screenplay was written by Julius Epstein, James Hamilton, and Walter Kelley. They changed the chronology of the book, but adapted some of the key scenes and kept most of the characters.
The novel opens with Steiner’s platoon in the front lines of the German perimeter. We are introduced to his men, who have pretty much the same personalities as in the movie. For example, Schnurrbart is a mustachioed rock, Kern is a slacker jerk, Kruger is a slob, Dietz is boyish, Zoll is a troublemaker (but not the resident Nazi like in the movie). The book has a key character named Dorn who is an intellectual that Steiner likes to discuss philosophy with. The movie Steiner is more laconic than philosophical. When the German army pulls back, Steiner’s group is ordered to stay by his battalion commander (unlike in the movie where the nefarious Stransky purposely leaves them behind). In the trek back to German lines, Steiner and crew (they start with eleven men) encounter the Russian female soldiers and the scene plays out similar to the movie except that at one point Steiner decides to go off on his own. He changes his mind and returns after an escaping Russian runs into him. This allows Steiner to avoid the difficult decision of killing the women to protect their continued journey. Zoll’s rape and death are essentially the same, but Dietz is not killed until a little later when he runs into a Russian patrol. Meanwhile, Stransky gets Triebig to admit he prefers men, but Keppler is not in the room.
When Steiner and the others reach the Russian front lines, they assault some bunkers with extreme prejudice. They capture a Russian officer and force him to radio that they are a Russian patrol going out. They proceed into no man’s land and Steiner goes ahead to identify them and they successfully make it in. Nine of the eleven make it back. Steiner meets Stansky for the first time. He offers to promote him to Sgt., but Steiner does not react. The conversation enrages Stransky and it doesn’t help that when he snidely asks if Steiner was an actor before the war, Steiner responds: “Not before the war”. (How did that line not make it into the movie?) Brandt gives Steiner two weeks R&R. He meets a nurse who he had an affair with when he was convalescing in a hospital thirteen months before. It turns out that she had seduced him and when he dumped her, she framed him for robbery which resulted in his being put in a penal battalion. At the rest area, he has an affair with another nurse named Gertrud. Steiner is not a ladies man and the romance is awkward. While he is gone, Dorn and Anselm are killed by a random shell.
When he returns, Steiner catches Triebig and Keppler in bed and beats Triebig up because he had sided with Stransky in the chewing out of Steiner earlier. The big Russian attack featuring tanks in the movie occurs at this point. Steiner leads the counterattack with Kruger, Hollerbach, Kern. and Faber (recruited by Steiner after their return across no man’s land). The Russians are caught between two forces and routed. Steiner is wounded and on the way to the evacuation station, his companion Hollerbach is run over by a tank. Steiner is away three months and returns to Schnurrbart, Kruger, Faber, and Maag. He finds out that Stransky is claiming to have led the counterattack and needs Steiner to sign off on his Iron Cross. The movie covers the meeting with the skeptical Brandt, but leaves out a central section where Keisel explains that Steiner wants time to think on it because Steiner does not want to be a witness in a court-martial. Keisel convinces Brandt to drop the matter, but threaten Stransky with consequences if he doesn’t back off of Steiner. Steiner has guilt feelings about how he did not appreciate all that Brandt had done for him, but he did not say he hates all officers, including Brandt.
The big set piece in the book is an attack on a Russian factory. This is barely recognizable in the movie in the scene where the Russian tanks break into a building the platoon had taken refuge in. Stransky plots with Triebig to kill Steiner in the factory. When Brandt calls to cancel the attack, Stransky does not pass the word. Steiner and the men negotiate the maze of corridors in the dark, eliminating the defenders. Triebig shoots Schnurrbart, mistaking him for Steiner. Steiner then insures that Triebig is killed by the Soviets. Upon returning, Steiner sets up an ambush for Stransky. Brandt is aware, but does nothing to stop this. Steiner ends up not killing Stransky and soon after Steiner is wounded by an artillery round and Faber loses his eyes. At the end of the book, Stransky is about to be transferred. Keisel is still with Brandt but he has told him he will be saved to help start a new Germany. The movie ending is not even remotely connected to the book. And since it is a poor ending to a great movie, you have to wonder what the screenwriters were thinking.
As you can read, the book has more scenes than in the movie. It is unclear why the screenwriters changed the order of the ones they kept. Subtracting scenes was inevitable, but resequencing was questionable. The movie jumps immediately into the Steiner/Stransky dynamic and structures the plot around it. The book does not really kick into this until midway through, allowing for some vignettes that develop the whole squad instead of just Steiner. The trek is pushed all the way to the last third of the book as a way to build to the confrontation between Stransky and Steiner. The novel is a multi-layered story of a platoon fighting a losing war whereas the movie is boiled down to a lost patrol movie with an evil brass cliché. Steiner completely dominates the movie, but in the book he is the main character and the rest of the unit get good coverage, too. As you would expect, the novel fleshes out the characters quite a bit more than the movie. The movie does borrow the basic personality traits, but the novel actually puts you into the characters’ heads and Heinrich gives each member of the platoon a chance to have their moment. Most importantly, Steiner is a multi-dimensional character, unlike the simply cynical, laconic movie Steiner. Heinrich’s Steiner is mercurial. He even pouts occasionally. He is quick-tempered and unstable. Significantly, for those of you who care about motivation, we find out why Steiner is the way he is. He lost his fiancé in mountain climbing accident that would scar anyone. There was also that frame-up by the nurse. Another difference between the movie platoon and the novel platoon is that in the book the men are much more dysfunctional. They are far from a band of brothers. Some of them hate each other and not all are enamored with Steiner, although all recognize that without him they are doomed.
The movie does retain the Brandt/Keisel dynamic, but obviously the book includes much more of their interesting discussions. Keisel is one of my favorite fringe characters in war movies and Brandt is a key figure in the theme that even some of the German leaders were cynical. It was certainly unfair when Steiner lumped him in with all officers. At least in the book, Steiner is remorseful. Keisel is the conscience of the book (along with Dorn). Keisel defines courage thus: “In 99 out of 100 cases, courage is nothing more than expression of common politeness or sense of duty. [The other 1%] is an expression of insanity.” Keisel gets almost as much ink as Stransky, since Stransky is a smaller character than in the movie. However, the movie does give us the full Stransky. By the way, there is no Russian boy-captive in the book. I would have to give the movie that one.
I have mentioned that in most cases I believe that war movies based on novels are better than the novel. However, “Cross of Iron” is not one of those movies. The main reason why the book is superior is because it is able to flesh out all the characters. Even the main character is more multi-dimensional and less mysterious. Clearly, a book should do this better than any movie, but the main reason why the movie is inferior is the dubious decisions on changing the sequence of events in the book’s plot. It would have been much smarter to use the novel as an outline and then eliminate scenes due to time pressures. The movie wisely condenses the theme to glory-hunting (Stransky) versus cynical survival (Steiner) and focuses on that aspect from the get-go. It is pretty effective in that single-mindedness, but blows it in the end with the ridiculously unrealistic ending that sees Steiner abetting Stransky. To have the officer-hating Steiner kill Triebig for killing his men and then have him spare the much more odious Stransky is bizarre. Heinrich’s Steiner also spares Stransky, but in a much more believable manner. And having Stransky get his transfer hammers Heinrich’s own cynical attitude toward the war he fought in.
BOOK = A
MOVIE = B+