A month or so ago I was watching The Flight of the Phoenix (the original; not the remake) when I found myself quite taken with James Stewart's co-star in the film, a handsome German actor with blonde hair, blue eyes, and full lips named Hardy Kruger. In the 1965 adventure classic, Kruger's character -- Heinrich Dorfmann -- informs the crew after their plane crashes in the Sahara desert that he knows how to build airplanes and can create a new working one by salvaging parts from the damaged aircraft. Little do they know that Dorfmann's airplane engineering experience is limited to model airplanes -- the punchline moment of the film.
It's a great movie, and I don't know if I can ever bring myself to watch the 2004 remake (which starred Dennis Quaid in Stewart's role and the squirrely Giovanni Ribisi in Kruger's.) I'm a sucker for German guys, and after watching The Flight of the Phoenix I had to Google up Kruger to see what else he had been in. Turns out one of the things he has been in is the Adolf Hitler School at the Ordensburg Sonthofen in Bavaria! He was also in the German army during WWII, specifically the SS.
Now, it wasn't his fault -- according to Wikipedia and a website dedicated to his career, it was pretty typical for German boys in the 1930s to be drafted into Nazi youth organizations. In Kruger's case, he was recruited to join the Deutsches Jungvolk at the age of 10 in 1938. In the Jungvolk, students participated in physical activities such as sports, hiking, and camping -- and were also required to attend Nazi rallies and parades, and given military training. They were encouraged to inform the authorities if their parents were against Nazi doctrine. Luckily this wasn't a problem for Kruger; his parents were great admirers of Hitler. Years later Kruger told a Swiss newspaper, "The memory of Hitler's bust on my mother's piano stands for a wasted childhood, a stolen youth, and a painful passage into the state of being human."
When filming ended, Kruger was heartbroken to learn he had been ordered to return to the school. In 1945, towards the end of the war, he was recruited yet again to join the SS Division Nibelungen, a last-ditch effort by Hitler to fight the allies that was made up of mostly 16 year-old boys. Kruger and his group were ordered to eliminate a group of American soldiers, but upon seeing the men's faces up close he could not do it. He was supposed to be executed by firing squad for cowardice, but another SS officer stopped the order. He then was made a messenger, but deserted his squadron and hid out in the mountains and abandoned farms until the war was over.
He got a job as an extra in a movie, honed his acting skills, and then traveled to France in search of more work where he was met with distaste: "Look at you! Blonde hair! Blue eyes! We had people that looked like you all over France -- for years. Their arrogance is not forgotten. Nor are their crimes. Show us a grey uniform and we're scared."
Kruger felt ashamed, and guilty. But he eventually settled in London (where he was reminded again by an actress that everyone she knew had lost someone in the war.) He learned how to speak English and improve his accent, and six months later a British movie director named Roy Baker offered him the lead role of a German pilot in the movie The One That Got Away -- ironically, playing a German WWII pilot on the run after being shot down. The 1957 motion picture was a big hit, and more studios started to take notice of Kruger.
After several British and German films, Hollywood came calling when Kruger was cast alongside John Wayne in the 1962 African safari film Hatari!. During filming Kruger fell in love with Africa, and purchased the farm near Mount Kilimanjaro which served as the setting for the movie.
I find it interesting that Kruger was embraced by Hollywood given his controversial younger years -- but he has adamantly denounced his involvement with the Third Reich several times in interviews and he was forced to join it pretty much against his will, after all.
Other notable projects that Kruger has been in include The Wild Geese, A Bridge Too Far, and the TV miniseries War and Remembrance. He's also a pilot, having learned to fly at a young age, and the author of over a dozen books including his own autobiography. For over 30 years he's been married to a beautiful American woman, and his son -- Hardy Kruger, Jr. -- is also an actor. He's currently 88 years old, so here's a toast to those Teutonic genes!
I have a bit of catching up to do with the other films in Kruger's resume. He's a fine actor -- and darn fine to look at!