FILM: “Stalag 17”
DIRECTOR: Billy Wilder
WRITER: Edwin Blum & Billy Wilder (Based on the Play Written By Donald Bevan & Edmund Trzcinski)
STARRING: William Holden, Don Taylor, Robert Strauss, Otto Preminger, Peter Graves
The year is 1944. In the midst of the Second World War, this German prisoner of war camp, or a stalag, is filled with 630 United States airmen. The majority of prisoner’s at Stalag 17 have grown restless, but not hopeless. The men in barracks number 4 have been planning the escape of two of their own. On the night of the escape, the two men make it just outside the wired fence before they are shot and killed. All the men they left behind with such hope are devastated by the loss. That is all, but one.
Sergeant J.J. Sefton (William Holden) is not interested in forming a bond with his fellow prisoners. He is a realist with no room in his heart for hope. An exploitive hustler, he will make a bet with anyone, including the guards if it suits his purpose. Sefton keeps to himself as plans are made by whom he thinks are foolish men. His pessimistic and selfish attitude makes him the loner in this desolate world behind the wires.
When the escape plan fails, the men begin to suspect that a traitor is among them, tipping off the Nazis. Could Sefton be the informant? It would certainly match up with his character. If not Sefton, then who is the traitor?
“Stalag 17” rides the line between comedy and drama. This is an interesting feel for a prisoner of war film. The various prisoners range from riotously over-the-top to quietly heartbreaking. The German guards are Nazis who kill, but they are often portrayed as amusing caricatures. When the film was released in 1953, the world was still reeling and basking in the end of the war. The film is seemingly looking to make light of a rather dark part of history. A victory lap or sorts for American audiences to laugh and point at the foolishness of it all.
Six-time Oscar winner Billy Wilder wrote (along with Edwin Blum), produced and directed “Stalag 17.” Wilder was born in Austria in 1906 to a Jewish family. He would go on to study journalism at the University of Vienna before moving to Berlin, then to Paris and finally to Hollywood to escape the Nazi Party. According to biographer Andreas Hutter, Wilder lost his mother, stepfather and grandmother at the hands of the Nazis. An immigrant Jew fleeing oppression and genocide, Wilder would become one of the most prestigious American filmmakers in the history of film.
“Stalag 17’s” star William Holden won his only Oscar for his performance of Sergeant Sefton. Sefton is the quintessential anti-hero. Turner Classic Movies reported that Holden was not Wilder’s first choice for the role. Although Holden had done Wilder proud in “Sunset Boulevard” (1950), Wilder did not come to Holden until after he offered the role to Montgomery Clift. When Holden won his Oscar, he gave the shortest Oscar speech of all time, simply stating, “Thank you.”
CULTURE AND THEMATIC ANALYSIS:
Being a film about prisoners of war, “Stalag 17” works to build a solid comradery between the men in barracks number four. This group of guys is especially loud, especially horny, especially ridiculous, but most importantly, especially loyal. When the film opens, the narrator tells the audience what they should expect from a large group of isolated and frustrated men- a riot. War or no war. Prisoner or not. Men will be men.
The anti-hero is on full display in the Sergeant Sefton character. The man is unlikable. He is only in it for himself and his eventual payoff. Watching this film, I was reminded of Han Solo in the first “Star Wars” film (1977). Both Sefton and Solo are slick players. They sit back, wait to take advantage and have a tremendous amount of game when they are confronted. Up until both films’ final moments, each character’s moral compass and their innate selfishness are at odds. Harrison Ford’s Solo and William Holden’s Sefton have the audience wanting to believe that in the end, they will do the right thing, but still doubting.
RESPONSE TO THE FILM AT THE TIME:
“Stalag 17” is based on the Broadway play written by Donald Bevan & Edmund Trzcinski about their experience in a POW camp during WWII. Reviewers of the film that had had the opportunity to see the play lauded it as a worthy adaptation. When it was released, “Stalag 17” was a huge hit. According to Variety, it was one of the biggest films of 1953. The film received three Oscar nominations (Best Actor- Holden, Best Director- Wilder, Best Supporting Actor- Robert Strauss), with Holden winning the gold.
COMPARISONS TO ANY MOVIES OF TODAY:
Recent POW films have taken a very serious approach to the subject matter. 2002’s “Hart’s War,” starring Brue Willis, Terrance Howard, and Colin Farrell, tells the story of a prisoner of war who is tasked to defend a fellow detainee after he is accused of murdering a racist Officer. The film may bite off more than it can chew, but its intentions are honorable. 2006’s “Rescue Dawn” finds Christian Bale and Steve Zahn in a Vietnamese POW camp. It is a disturbing film with fine performances from the two leads. Unlike “Stalag 17,” these two examples leave no room for the comedic.
WHY IT STILL RESONATES:
“Stalag 17” is not one of Billy Wilder’s most famous films. That title would be given to the likes of “The Apartment,” “Some Like it Hot” or “Sunset Boulevard.” But what this film was able to do was set a president for comedy out of heartache and the absurd in the everyday. “MASH” is a perfect example of this. That book/movie/television show is about the horrific Korean War, but its analysis is rooted in humor. “Stalag 17” broke the mold. Wilder tried and succeeded in conveying the ridiculousness of war. Filmmakers who push the boundaries will ultimately pave the way for others to follow suit. We owe Wilder a great deal of gratitude.