Stalag 17 (Cert PG)
1 Disc Blu-ray (Distributor: Eureka) Running Time: 120 minutes approx.
In a Luftwaffe prisoner-of-war camp along the Danube River prior to Christmas 1944, a group of US prisoners send two men on an escape bid executing a seemingly infallible plan. However they are shot barely a few feet away from the camp fence, leading the rest of the remaining prisoners to suspect someone in their ranks is betraying them to the Germans. Due to his success in wheeling and dealing in obtaining goods and luxuries, Sgt. J.J. Sefton (William Holden) is the prime suspect and the boys aren’t shy in voicing their suspicions – but Sefton insists he is innocent.
Billy Wilder was not just a prolific director but a versatile one. If he wasn’t making seminal film noir or legendary comedies Wilder would turn a cynical and satirical eye on the media industry, Hollywood included! Amidst this run of social criticism and intelligent rom coms Wilder turned his attention to the recent issue of World War II, via his adaptation of the play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, given his own unique twist of course.
The story is narrated by a prisoner named Cookie (Gil Stratton) who is Sefton’s loyal friend, explaining how this vast complex is holding prisoners of all nationalities including Russian women, of whom there are few glimpses but the imagination of interred sex starved men is a powerful thing.
All was well (as can be) in barrack number 17 until the two comrades were shot leading to questions being asked about how the German’s knew about this secret plan in advance. Sefton is top of the list for the other prisoners but the possibilities are actually plentiful.
There’s the playful duo of Animal (Robert Strauss) and Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck), Price (Peter Graves) who was put in charge of security, radio expert Blondie Peterson (Robert Shawley), mentally damaged soldier Joey (Robinson Stone) and even barrack leader Hoffy (Richard Erdman).
Whoever it is, they are playing their cards very close to their chests in avoiding being caught, but with Sefton under scrutiny they are able to continue with their deception. The method of communication revealed is both simple and ingenious but what we do know is that the middle man for the Germans is jovial Sgt. Schulz (Sig Ruman), who reports everything to camp commandant Oberst von Scherbach (Otto Preminger).
In between horse races featuring mice, dance parties with illegal booze, radio hacking and dreams of Betty Grable, the turning point for the group comes in the form of a US Lieutenant Dunbar (Don Taylor), who is accused (and of guilty of) blowing up a German artillery train. Knowing their mole could easily shop Dunbar at any moment, even after interference from an inspector on behalf of the Geneva Convention, an audacious rescue and escape plan is concocted.
An inspiration for the popular US TV comedy series of the 1960’s Hogan’s Heroes, Wilder gives us a film that makes us laugh and has received some criticism for portraying the plight of POWs in an unrealistic manner. Bearing in mind this film was made during the Code Era of Hollywood, Wilder was able to throw some timely reminders of the horrors of war to circumvent this oppression of creativity – most notably the one legged prisoner who would smuggle goods into the barracks under the trouser leg of his missing limb. Elsewhere scenes of mental torture replace the violence we might see today, such as Dunbar being forced to stand on his feet for three days while being questioned.
Hollywood war films tend to be viewed askance by international audiences because of their über-patriotic stance and shameless flag waving. Austrian born Jew Wilder isn’t completely immune to such practices but does tone it down considerably by having the main cast be willing to associate and support the non-US soldiers, especially the Russian girls.
Despite the prisoners being the sort of wise cracking or gruff tough guy American stereotypes, they are a very likable and supportable bunch and always entertaining. The Germans too are very much the prototype for Allo Allo and other wartime comedy caricatures but even eight years after the war’s end, one can tell that some caution is taken not to be too offensive about them.
William Holden won an Oscar for his role as Sefton, a part he initially turned down, feeling Sefton was too cynical and selfish until Paramount stepped in and made him take it – a move I’m sure he didn’t regret it afterwards. In actual fact Holden plays the role with a keen confidence, avoiding making Sefton into a whinger trying to prove his innocence, instead exploiting his guile in forcing his accusers to prove his guilt. Sig Ruman was the foil for Groucho Marx in both Night At The Opera and Day At The Races and while he brings some of that buffoonery here, Schultz at least gets the upper hand a bit more often.
The central driving force of this film however comes in the shape of Animal and Shapiro, whose comedic chemistry would suggest that Robert Strauss and Harvey Lembeck might have been a real double act but weren’t. Their antics provide most of the laughs while a tacit melancholy about their interment bubbles beneath their ebullient personalities. One might suggest that Peter Graves was taking notes here for his future role in Mission Impossible, displaying the same serious sense of adventure our comic duo ably distract us from.
Whether you want to label Stalag 17 a serious war drama or a war comedy it is a great film set around this infamous conflict. The fact Wilder can demonstrate a sense of humour about such a then still raw subject and garner both critical and commercial approval from doing so speaks volumes about his genius.
Many war films of both a serious and comic bent have been made before and since but the lasting influence of Stalag 17 above all other is indisputable, given a new lease of life via this fabulous new Blu-ray release.
New High Definition 1080p Presentation
Audio Commentary with Richard Erdman, Gil Stratton and Donald Bevan
Stalag 17: From Reality To Screen
The Real Heroes Of Stalag XVII B
Video Interview with Neil Sinyard
28 Page Booklet
Rating – **** ½
Man In Black