Unusually for a war film, the maps in Cross of Iron
do very little to situate the action, and for a long time we only know vaguely where on the Eastern Front this German unit is (Compare with other war films here
). The first map we see is being studied by Brandt (James Mason) as he muses in general terms about 'this damned country', adding that 'one of these days this land will swallow us up':
Later in the same scene, Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell) is impressed at being offered a glass of German wine: 'a 1937 Moselle in the southernmost corner of Russia', which allows Brandt to brood again about where they are: 'A bottle of Moselle is no more out of place in this region than we are ourselves'. The film's topographical focus is largely this, that the Germans here are out of place.
This room is littered with maps, none of which has legible detail:
Much later, when Sergeant Steiner (James Coburn) is with his unit in 'no man's land', he consults a map but again we see nothing that identifies the exact locale:
Eventually, the film offers the expected scene in which operations are indicated on a map, usually for the benefit of both characters and spectators. The map has legible detail, but only someone familiar with the 'Taman Offensive Operations' during the Battle of the Caucasus in 1943 would be able to situate the German unit we have been following. In fact this map is examined only for the benefit of the characters. A larger view of this map is not much more informative, nor are Brandt's world-weary comments as he points out the improvised train line on the map:
A last map in the film is being used by Russian women soldiers when they are attacked by Steiner's unit. Like the previous map, it has been modified in accordance with the immediate military situation. What we can see of the map are only these modifications:
Cross of Iron is admired - especially by enthusiasts of militaria and weaponry - for its accuracy of detail, and more broadly for its realism. The use of maps as décor is a conventional realism, but the lack of a discursive topographical frame, leaving the spectators in greater than usual confusion as to where they are, is a refinement of realism.
Andrew V. McLagen's 1979 sequel to Cross of Iron is much more conventional in its presentation of maps, especially when its action shifts from the Eastern to the Western Front. It also has a voice over giving an historical overview of the action presented, alleviating spectator confusion. (Breakthrough is not generally admired for its realism, nor for its accuracy of detail.)