Thursday, April 2, 2009

Billy Wilder's Stalag 17

Stalag 17: Special Collector’s Edition
Paramount // 1953 // 120 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans
Today we explore an acclaimed World War II drama of spies and sabotage, honor and bravery. Our setting is the German prison camp Stalag 17, unwelcome home to American POWs. Some want to escape, others merely want to survive, and a few have private agendas of their own.

Opening shot…
William Holden earned an Oscar at last for his performance in this classic dramatic-comedy of prisoners of war. Legend has it that Holden flung his Academy Award backstage after his victory speech, muttering that he should have won for Sunset Boulevard (the story may be apocryphal, but he was right). Still, Holden’s work in Stalag 17 remains a masterpiece of unwavering, smart-ass cynicism. This was back in the day when the Academy still dished out Oscars based on ferociously good acting, rather than politics or sentiment.

A bit of plot…
U.S. Air Force officers and enlisted men scheme to survive as prisoners of war in Stalag 17. Cynical Sgt. J.J. Sefton (William Holden, The Wild Bunch) bribes the German guards and trades cigarettes for fresh eggs and other luxuries. His philosophy is dog-eat-dog. While the other prisoners plot to escape, Sefton cuts deals and sells shots of homemade hooch in exchange for his fellow prisoners’ Red Cross packages.

Escape from Stalag 17 appears impossible. The first two U.S. officers who try to break free are machine-gunned to death seconds after crawling out of their tunnel. The German guards always seem to be one step ahead of their prisoners. When the barracks leaders realize there must be a spy in their midst, suspicion falls on Sefton, who’s always paying the Nazis in exchange for favorable treatment. The caustic Sefton ridicules accusations that he’s an informer, but his reputation for verbal abuse and shady dealing hasn’t made him any friends in the barracks.

Historical context and significance
Director Billy Wilder (Some Like it Hot, The Apartment) worked in every film genre. He also directed one of the first pictures formally recognized as film noir: Double Indemnity. A Jewish émigré who fled Nazi-occupied Austria, Wilder took on quite a challenge when he decided to co-write the screenplay for Stalag 17, adapted from a 1951 Broadway play. But Wilder had an unerring ear for bitterly cynical dialogue and he was a genius at blending pessimism with comedy. The result three years earlier had been the celebrated Sunset Boulevard — still the best movie ever made about Hollywood. So perhaps a dramatic comedy set in a POW camp wasn’t too much of a stretch for the ambitious director. The result earned Wilder his fourth Oscar nomination for Best Director.

Holden is the standout in a perfect cast that includes a young Peter Graves (Mission: Impossible) and Robert Strauss, reprising his Broadway role as “Animal” Stosch, the deranged POW with a Betty Grable obsession. Strauss received an Oscar nomination for his show-stealing performance.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. Some of the casting decisions raised eyebrows half a century ago, but today come off inspired. Wilder hired director Otto Preminger (Anatomy of a Murder) to co-star as the casually cruel camp Kommandant. Like Wilder, Preminger was a Jew who fled the Nazis as they rose to power. Unlike Wilder, Preminger was extremely uncomfortable with this material and especially his prominent role as a German officer (above left, at center). These concerns are detailed in the 25-minute feature on the making of the film, included as an extra feature. This is worthwhile viewing, as the short documentary makes it clear that Wilder’s persuasive personality brought out the best in his collaborators. We learn that Holden wasn’t interested in the project and even walked out after the first act of Stalag 17 during its Broadway run. At that point Wilder toyed with the idea of casting Charlton Heston in the lead, but contractual obligations and conflicting schedules blocked that plan. So the director went back to Holden and put on a full-court press.

Other disc extras include a making-of featurette, and a feature-length commentary from two of the surviving actors and co-playwright Donald Bevan, who shares his thoughts about the adaptation of Stalag 17 from stage to screen. More poignant is a short series of interviews with actual survivors of Stalag XVIIB, as it was called. In chilling detail they recount the monotony and misery of that existence. Hearing their stories, we’re left with the sobering realization that few tragedies in life could be greater than rotting away so many lost years inside a Stalag. A photo gallery of production stills rounds out the extra features.

The Contrarian View
If a German prison camp seems an inappropriate setting for a comedy, just remember that the long-running television show Hogan’s Heroes — which was inspired by this film — carried the concept practically into slapstick.

A Billy Wilder classic, Stalag 17 endures both as middle-brow comedy and bracingly cynical character study.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.


  1. Thanks for the post. Good information. One correction though, Holden's character is J.J. "Sefton" not "Septon".

    Great part for Holden, great film by a great director! :-)

  2. Kudos to Anonymous for pointing out the typo; it has been corrected.




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