Stalag 17 (PG.)
1953. Directed by Billy Wilder.
Starring William Holden, Don Taylor, Robert Strauss, Harvey Lembeck, Robert Graves, Richard Erdman and Otto Preminger. Black and white. 120 mins. New On Blu-ray from Eureka! and their Masters Of Cinema series.
Seen now, Billy Wilder's great prison camp comedy drama comes to us through the prism of a couple of TV sitcoms. Hogan's Heroes, in which plucky American POWs outsmart stupid German guards, is a straight steal, though the Germans are not so insultingly dim in this; while William Holden's character Sefton, the camp scrounger and dealer who is always looking for an angle, is like an evil Bilko.
It's the Christmas of 1944 and the POWs in Stalag 17 have it relatively easy, although they may not realise this. Conditions are grim but bunked up in their dorms the American officers are treated with comparative respect but their Nazi jailors. Enjoying the situation the most is Sefton (Holden) who has built up a range of contacts within the camp, runs all the illegal gaming activities, can get his hands on anything and is building up a nice little chest of treasure for himself. His situation though is about to get a lot worse after a disastrous escape attempt leads the others to conclude that there must be a stool pigeon in the barracks feeding info to the Germans, and suspicion falls on him.
This was Wilder's follow up to Ace In The Hole, also released in the Masters of Cinema range, and after that failed to find an audience, Stalag 17 was taken on as a chance to get another hit. You'd have thought that less than a decade after the end of the war a film that made light of the suffering, and wasn't entirely positive about American service men would have been quite edgy and contentious. In fact the film was based on a play that had been a big hit on Broadway, and was seen as something of a sure thing.
The humour in it makes it seem both ahead of its time and dated. The cold, cynical antihero and the breezy attitude to the harshness of camp life seems very contemporary, while the broad clowning provided by the Strauss and Lembeck's double act (playing the barrack's clown) hasn't aged so well. But even when it doesn't make you laugh, it does go some way to expressing the desperation of the prisoners in that camp. (The slapstick moment when they paint a white strip across a guard's face is a step too far though.)
Holden may be the reason why the film has held its value – even though he is our hero he is never redeemed. He is a bad guy, who suffers the injustice of being mistaken for a much worse guy. Even when this is revealed, he doesn't embrace redemption. He remains focused on himself, it is still every man for himself. He is a genuinely unpleasant person.
Holden won the Oscar for best actor in a leading role (probably because the From Here To Eternity pair of Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Cliff split their vote) and it's an odd choice because it's not a leading role. Good times or bad he is always the outsider, always the periphery. The moment he is moved into the central role is the moment he has to get out of there.
Feature length commentary by actors Richard Erdman (Hoffy), Gil Stratton (“Cookie”) and playwright Donald Bevan who co wrote the original Broadway play.
A 36-page booklet containing an essay, interview material, and rare archival imagery
Three features all just under half an hour long.
New video interview with film scholar Neil Sinyard.
Stalag 17: From reality to screen.
The real heroes of Stalag 17.