|STALAG 17 (1953)|
|"What is this anyway, a kangaroo court? Why don't you get a rope and do it right?"|
|Time: 120 mins.|
Rating: Not Rated
Won Academy Award for Best Actor (Holden). Nominated for Best Director and Best Supporting Actor (Strauss).
Billy Wilder is one of my favorite directors, so when I get the chance to see one of his films I take it. I'm more familiar with his comedies like SOME LIKE IT HOT and THE APARTMENT, which are two of my favorite films of all time. STALAG 17 is more of a dramatic picture, though it does have humorous moments to help break up the seriousness of the situation. It also stars my new favorite actor William Holden, who so utterly blew me away with his performance in THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI that I couldn't pass up an opportunity to see him acting again. STALAG 17 may not be a classic that leaps from everyone's tongue, but it's definitely a film worth seeing. It's slightly more dated than some of Wilder's other films, but the story and performances capture the imagination. You may be thinking, "not another POW drama," and believe me I'd normally agree with the sentiment. However, Wilder's stories are never ordinary and STALAG 17 manages to rise above the usual, overly-patriotic fare. Besides, I think it was the main inspiration for the sitcom HOGAN'S HEROES, which has to mean something.
The film opens with the attempted escape of two prisoners from Stalag 17, one of many barracks holding allied POWs. The men of this barracks have been working long and hard on their escape tunnel and now they're going to see if all the effort pays off. Well, Sefton (Holden), an American with a dubious past and black market present, bets the other men they won't make it past the inner fence. Unfortunately for both him and the escapees, he's right. The rest of the men in the barracks had a feeling there was a snitch amongst them and upon their comrades brutal deaths, are pretty sure the rat is Sefton. He was never very popular to begin with, so their cold stares and innuendos don't bother him all that much. Of course, things get harder for their group as the camp commandant (played by Otto Preminger) and his cagey, yet friendly second in command Sergeant Schulz (Ruman) crack down on Stalag 17. Not only does the group lose whatever amenities they had, it becomes even more apparent that one of their own is working against them. Price (Graves), the head of security for the barracks, promises to get to the bottom of the leak.
Things get downright ugly with the arrival of Lieutenant Dunbar (Taylor). He confides in the group about how he blew up a German munitions train while he was captured. If the leaders of the camp find out his secret, he could be shot for sabotage. When he's arrested soon after, all fingers point to Sefton and he gets beaten within an inch of his life. Though they can't prove it was him, the evidence doesn't look good. The beating makes Sefton think long and hard about who could be setting him up. There's no way he's going to take the rap for someone else and begins to plot in earnest to uncover the real spy. It's not easy, but after several illuminating events, he begins to put two and two together. Unfortunately, until he can gather concrete proof, the other men will never belief him. Meanwhile, Dunbar's life is on the line, forcing the men to devise a plan to smuggle him out of the camp. When the snitch volunteers to be the one to help Dunbar escape, Sefton, who has confirmed his suspicions, exposes the spy once and for all. The men feeling horribly betrayed make sure the traitor is held accountable for his actions.
There's certainly nothing deep or extremely exciting about STALAG 17, but for some reason it's still an enjoyable movie. Maybe it's the great acting or the deft direction, but it's most likely the intriguing storyline. Yes, the comedy is a bit broad and over-reaching at times, but the underlying drama and intrigue is what makes this entertaining. I never really believed the men were in fear for their lives, but the Germans certainly meant business...in between all the comic jests. There have been more realistic and evil portrayals of Germans before and since, but that's not really the point here. STALAG 17 is about the men and the spy who's making their lives miserable, not a film about German/POW relations. William Holden won an Oscar for this role and the reason is pretty clear. He's mesmerizing as the smarmy, selfish Sefton, who would rather save his own hide than fight for his country. No sir, he's going to go home in one piece and doesn't give a damn what other people think of him. That is unless they think he's a spy who would betray his fellow soldiers. He may want to sit out the war in a modicum of comfort, but he would never turn in his fellow soldiers. He's opportunistic, but not a traitor. If you've never seen any of Holden's films, you're really missing something.
The rest of the cast is pretty forgettable, doing their jobs well, but without much fanfare, except for Otto Preminger and Peter Graves. I recognized Graves' voice, but couldn't place the face because he looks sooo young. He plays a pivotal role in this little drama and does a wonderful job with it. I haven't seen much of his acting work and was duly impressed. Preminger is both amusing and scary as the camp leader. It's clear he's got a mean streak a mile long, even though he'd prefer not to get his hands dirty. He makes the most of this supporting role. The character of Schulz from "Hogan's Heroes" had to be lifted directly from this movie. Since the TV show was pure comedy, they made him more gullible and soft-hearted than in the film version where he's quite smart and manipulative. Otherwise, he's a dead ringer. It's pretty weird. For a film that mainly takes place on one set, Wilder and his editors manage to keep the plot moving and the story interesting. Much like THE GREEN MILE, they make the most of their main set, making you think there's more to the location than actually exists.
I have to say that this isn't my favorite Billy Wilder film, however, it's more entertaining than I expected. Not a fan of the prison/war movie, this is a film I can recommend to others as one that tries to transcend its genre. It doesn't always succeed, but I enjoyed the ride. I can honestly say that I'll probably watch it again if given the opportunity. I didn't really care for the comedy parts, but at least I now know when I can get up and fix a snack.