I must admit that when I first heard the title Stalag 17 (1953) it didn’t appeal to me…neither it, nor the premise behind the movie: a comedy about the hardships of American prisoners of war – hardly, a laughing matter. I was all of sixteen then. Consequently, I abstained from considering the movie any further beyond its title for a goodly number of years, until I was laid up in bed with a fever and basically at the mercy of three broadcast channels after midnight – two playing exercise infomercials, the other beginning a classic re-broadcast with the late Elwy Yost and Stalag 17. What I quickly discovered is that like everything else director Billy Wilder touches, Stalag 17 was easily imbued with his touch of genius and more than a modicum of razor-sharp wit in its dialogue; distinguishable trademarks belonging to virtually every movie Wilder ever made.
Of course, Stalag 17 had been a prominent comedy on Broadway before it became a hit film; although initially no one at Paramount wanted to fund the project. In fact, Stalag 17 was rejected four times before a chance meeting between playwrights Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, and, Yul Brynner pointed a path to Billy Wilder, who saw it on the stage and instantly fell under its spell. Wilder, however, was not above rewriting greatness to suit his own tastes. Virtually none of Bevan and Trzcinski’s original dialogue survived this transition from stage to screen with Wilder and co-writer Edwin Blum tag-teaming to pool their creative juices into an acerbic cinematic flambé – succinct in its incendiary, but jovial jabs and astutely scathing take on the rank suffrage of POW’s. Indeed, in planning this review I am reminded of Stalag 17’s certain je ne sais quoi; its’ impossible mélange of Nazis, death, deception and war effortlessly stirred into Wilder’s comedic soufflé, the whole thing so gosh darn light and kooky that one could almost as easily forget the severity of the circumstances surrounding both the play and movie’s subject matter.
War is not a laughing matter. Arguably no one knew this better than Bevan and Trcinski (both appearing in cameo parts in the movie); who had been POWs themselves. But Wilder isn’t poking fun at the enemy or even the suffrage endured so much as he is attempting to illustrate the power of wartime camaraderie arising between these captive men of mixed faith and origin brought together under arguably some of the most appalling living conditions. At the crux of Stalag 17 there is the undeniable thread of male bonding; the movie perfectly cast with an essential star presence immeasurably supported by some truly stellar character actors. Each holds his own and is given a moment or two to shine without ever eclipsing the name above the title. Evidently, William Holden didn’t think much of the play. In point of fact he walked out after the first act. Holden’s star had dramatically risen after Billy Wilder cast him in Sunset Boulevard (1950); the movie that resurrected Holden’s career from certain oblivion. Moreover, Holden was grateful to Wilder and appreciative of the opportunity to work with him again. He really ought to have been indebted to Charlton Heston: Wilder’s first choice for the part, who proved unavailable due to a conflict of assignments. Bevan and Trzcinski were equally relieved, feeling Heston too large a presence – both physically and in performance – for the part of the laconic loner.
Holden’s chief concern remained that his character, Sgt. J.J. Sefton, is misperceived throughout a fair portion of the story as a Nazi sympathizer and stooge responsible for getting two Americans attempting escape murdered in a botched ambush. Holden had asked Wilder to write him in a line that clearly delineated Sefton’s aversion to Nazis. Wilder refused, rightly believing that the character’s ambiguity would heighten the suspense of the piece. If Holden’s own opacity about accepting the part continued to dissipate as shooting progressed, Wilder was faced with just as much apprehensiveness from co-star Otto Preminger; ideally cast as the unscrupulous Nazi Gen. Oberst von Scherbach. Preminger, a Viennese Jew who had fled the Nazis during the occupation, and who could be tyrannical as a producer/director on his own set, fell into line with Wilder’s vision of both the character and the movie. But he would forever regard Stalag 17 as a damning influence on his future procurement as an actor – thereafter branded as the perfect embodiment of the villainous Nazi thug.
As the dailies began to come in, Paramount’s top brass had a gripe of their own. Everyone in the cast looked awful; the film’s star weather-beaten and sporting realistic bruises, the supporting cast trudging through thick, black mud often caked onto their clothes and feet; Wilder’s attention to detail transforming the grunge and grime of the prison barracks into a filthy hole that proved the perfect counterbalance to his patina of comedy. Arguably, Paramount had not allotted $100,000.00 to Wilder to film a sty; nor had they counted upon Wilder’s sublime depiction of drunken arousal when the slovenly Sgt. Stanislaus ‘Animal’ Kuzawa (Robert Strauss) muddles through an alcoholic haze, briefly believing for a moment or two that his best friend in the camp, Sgt. Harry Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) is, in fact, an incarnation of Betty Grable (Animal’s ultimate fantasy pin-up girl). Paramount encouraged Wilder to tone down the inference that Animal was becoming ‘excited’ while engaging Harry in a Christmas dance. Wilder refused and was eventually successful at keeping this moment in his movie.
For the rest, Wilder hand-picked an exceptional supporting cast to re-envision the play in cinematic terms: Peter Graves as the stoolie, Sgt. Price; Don Taylor as Lt. James Dunbar, marked for treason and death after his involvement in the detonation of a railway bomb; Sig Ruman as the wily/jovial Nazi Sgt. Johann Sebastian Schulz, who conferred his messages with Price through hidden roles of paper exchanged in a hollow chess piece, and finally Richard Erdman, as Barracks overseer Sgt. ‘Hoffy’ Hoffman – the only actor to keep a straight face throughout the entire movie. Stalag 17’s narrative strength derives not simply from Wilder’s wit – always fresh and with something perceptive and/or revealing to say – but from his actors’ ability to differentiate through performance his words as uniquely belonging to them – the characters taking on more ballast, Wilder’s prose becoming their own words rather than mere pages of dialogue spoken in tandem.
Stalag 17 opens with a clever narration by Clarence Harvey ‘Cookie’ Cook (Gil Stratton); setting up the grim premise for a daring prison break that ends badly for POWs Manfredi (Michael Moore) and Johnson (Peter Baldwin). Their ‘foolproof’ plan of tunneling to freedom ends in a bloody ambush just beyond the barbed wire fence. Someone must have tipped the Nazi guard off. But who? All evidence seems to point to the cynical Sgt. Sefton (William Holden) who callously takes bets on the pair making it out alive, has a stash of ill-gotten goodies in a chest beneath his mattress and seems to have established a unique and favorable rapport with Sgt. Feldwebel Schulz (Sig Ruman), affording him special perks, such as fraternizing with the nearby camp of Russian maidens. Sefton’s fellow detainees don’t think much of him but the feeling is mutual.
In fact, Sefton seems to be exploiting the men by organizing, among other gambles, a mouse race – capitalizing on the men’s desperation and daydreams of home to make a quick buck or two. Sefton’s only real pal is Cookie, who sticks close until the men collectively decide that Sefton is actually a spy kissing up to the Nazis. Perhaps Sefton was responsible for tipping off Schulz about Manfredi and Johnson’s escape. While the men contemplate the possibility that Sefton is a traitor (simply because they don’t like him), the Wilder/Blum screenplay concentrates on extoling the camp lifestyle and camaraderie; the much looked forward to collective activities of hearing and receiving the daily news, hilariously relayed by Marko the Mailman (William Pierson), the appalling food rations and bathing conditions (they use communal latrine sinks), and the organization of periodic parties and future escape attempts to keep morale up and the men sane. Sgt. Price (Peter Graves) is in charge of security. Naturally, no one suspects him of smuggling information from the barracks using rolled up paper inside a hollow chess piece as his means of communication; the placement of a loose knot in the cord of a hanging lamp in the barracks alerting Schulz to a new message hidden inside.
However, after Schulz confiscates a clandestine radio used to pick up the BBC broadcast, the men retaliate against Sefton, beating him to a pulp and looting his stash. When the Geneva Man (Irwin Kalser) arrives for his general inspection of the camp he finds the men belligerent. But Sgt. Hoffman (Richard Erdman) takes it upon himself to make inquiries about the detainment of Lt. James Schuyler Dunbar (Don Taylor) who was removed from their barracks earlier and is currently being tortured by Scherbach using sleep deprivation techniques because he is suspected of having blown up a Nazi railway. Aware of Sefton’s animosity toward Dunbar – because he graduated from the flyer program Sefton failed, and also because Dunbar comes from an affluent family, the men firmly believe Sefton is responsible for Dunbar’s current incarceration. But Sefton is no fool. In fact, he’s already figured out who the real stoolie is.
After Sefton reveals the truth about Price to the rest of the men Price attempts an escape. He is bound, gagged and forcibly dragged to the floor, silenced while Hoffman makes plans for Dunbar’s daring escape. At the break of dawn, as Dunbar is being led by guards to a waiting car that will take him to Berlin (and his death), the men detonate a smoke bomb, pummel the guards and whisk Dunbar to the nearby water tower where he waits while the rest of the plot is hatched. Sefton agrees to make the daring escape with Dunbar under the cover of night, writing off his fellow detainees with his ‘go to hell’ attitude. The men stage a diversion, using Price as bait – thrusting him into no man’s land with noisy cow bells attached to his feet to create a disturbance. Unaccustomed to such obvious distractions the watchtower guards blindly open fire and murder their own man, von Scherbach and Schulz only discovering the rouse after the body has been turned over; time enough for Sefton and Dunbar to have made their break to freedom.
From beginning to end, Stalag 17 is a cynically engaging, poignantly staged, and occasionally prophetic masterpiece. Billy Wilder’s movies frequently rank among the top ten in their respective categories. Yet Stalag 17 is difficult to place. On the one hand, it is an observing comedy of errors set in the unlikeliest milieu of a POW camp (inspiring the latter day creation of Hogan’s Heroes for primetime TV). On the other hand, Stalag 17 is a rather scathing and wickedly satirical view of war in general. And still, it owes goodly strength to the precepts of the melodrama, arguably with light comedy peppered in. Wilder, a master craftsman in virtually any and all genres has resisted the urge to clearly delineate the movie for his audience. Arguably, Stalag 17 plays to all of the aforementioned virtues equally, and this is perhaps its greatest accomplishment; Wilder keeping the arc of his narrative taut and exacting while finding moments of verisimilitude only possible through humor – both high and low brow.
Immediately embraced upon its release, Stalag 17 was nominated for several Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actor William Holden – who accepted his Oscar rather begrudgingly. (He would have preferred it for his performance in Sunset Boulevard instead.) Viewed today, Stalag 17 retains its air of intangible magic that goes beyond crackling and bright prose or even its stunning ensemble performances and set pieces. The movie…well…moves, Wilder and his characters making – but never belaboring – their points; the intermingling of tragedy and silliness merging as two perfectly realized halves to the same equation. Movies as good as this are very rare indeed – but remarkably more ever-present in Billy Wilder’s own canon of indelible classics: Double Indemnity, Sabrina, Sunset Boulevard, The Seven Year Itch, Witness for the Prosecution, The Apartment and Some Like It Hot among them. In such esteemed company Stalag 17 often gets overlooked. I still think it’s the title – failing, as it so obviously does, to offer even a glimmer of the robust and razorback drollness that follows. Oh well, we can forgive a weak title when what is sandwiched between it and ‘the end’ credit is pure box office gold. Stalag 17 is just that – a winner in more ways than one and by far one of the best war-themed satires ever made.
Warner Home Video’s distribution deal with Paramount has yielded another winner in hi-def. It’s Paramount’s mastering we’re seeing here and the results are nothing short of marvelous. Stalag 17 has always looked rather dark on DVD. True enough, this isn’t a bright and airy movie – in visual terms – but now we can appreciate Ernest Laszlo’s strangely sumptuous/yet bleak cinematography. The gray scale exhibits pluperfect tonality. Just wonderful. And film grain is presented pleasingly throughout. Fine detail pops, even during sequences shot at night. The ‘wow factor’ is in evidence. The 2.0 DTS audio is exceptionally hearty, particularly during Franz Waxman’s sparse music cues. Dialogue sounds natural and impressively clean. You’re going to love this disc. Paramount has also retained all of the extras found on its previously issued SE DVD. We get two featurettes – one about the making of the film, the other dedicated to recollections from real-life POWs. Potent stuff. Unfortunately, neither featurette is given an upgrade. Each shows just how awful 720i video-based content can look. There’s also an audio commentary, succinct on factoid information but still worth a listen. Bottom line: highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)