No one has ever escaped from Stalag 17, a POW camp for American airmen near the Danube. Maybe that’s because there’s a spy in barracks four. The German guards seem to know everything that’s happening before it happens. Most of the American POWs suspect Sergeant J.J. Sefton (William Holden), whose wheeling-and-dealing rates him special privileges from the camp guards. When Lieutenant Dunbar arrives at the prison camp, and is accused of blowing up an ammunition train, the American prisoners must expose the stoolie before he informs the Germans where Dunbar is hiding, AND get Dunbar out of the “unescapable” camp before the SS arrives to take him into custody.
Stalag 17 was the first Billy Wilder film I had ever watched and it was way before I even knew who Billy Wilder was. I stumbled across it on some station, probably AMC, when I was in high school and I heard it was a comedy set in a German POW camp and I was really intrigued. How could a movie set in such horrible conditions be open for a comedy? At this time I had no appreciation for classic movies, no love for black and white and yet I was gripped the whole time.
Wilder is known for mixing genres together so well and this was a great example of that. I watched to see if the movie could pull off the comedic aspects but what kept me stay glued to the screen was the drama and the characters. Stalag 17 has a perfect build up that it feels the walls are closing in on the characters. The film does this build up really slowly but it doesn’t feel tedious because while Wilder is setting the scene he is diverting the audiences attention with the slapstick humor of Animal and the way that the soldiers pass the day to day grind without going crazy. By the time the barrack attacks Sefton it is jarring to see because it has been a comedy but it is not surprising with how everything was going.
William Holden was great in this film and it is where I started to really love the actor. His Sefton is introduced by betting AGAINST the success of an escaping POW. We meet the main character as he is profiting off the death of fellow prisoners and the film never softens his edges. He has no friends and is only out for himself. Even though in the end he saves the day and outs the spy, I never believed he did this for any reason other than he was pissed because he got a beating that he didn’t deserve/earn.
Lemmon might have been Wilder’s best actor to personify the “everyman” but I think Holden’s character in both this movie and in Sunset Boulevard are shaped to be the personification of the bitter wit of what Wilder was so good at. Only Holden and Wilder could make the last line spoken by Sefton, “If I ever run into any of you bums on a street corner, just let’s pretend we’ve never met before” be both a giant middle finger to the barracks and a sweet farewell. Are you as big of a fan of this movie as I am?
The movie is based on a stage play that ran for over 400 shows, and this movie was one of the biggest hits of Wilder’s career. Why? I’d say it’s an easy call– this thing is double baked in nostalgia and the warm conjectures of the camaraderie of World War II. The characters and the stereotypes they represent are so broad they could grab some straw and put it on their head and call themselves Betty Grable. (Okay, one guy in the movie actually does that, but that’s not the point.)
Coming out eight years after the war, it’s pretty naked in that desire to appeal to the simplicity of war era– which, yeah, compared to the emerging Cold War probably seemed like a cake walk. The characters here, from the loyal ragamuffins to the goofy Animal and Shapiro, all have their nasty side, but are calculated to remind the viewer of what they were in the worst conditions of the war. Look at Hoffy, the soldier with PTSD– he’s simple and sweet and a little sad but not much else.
William Holden is great, but William Holden is always great. I think what gets me isn’t that last line of Sefton’s you mentioned but what happens after that. He disappears into the trap door, but, after a beat, pops back up and gives his bunkmates a salute. That can be read as sardonic, but there’s just enough to Sefton’s character that it wouldn’t be a shock that it’s almost genuine.
I think even after the beatings, Sefton loves those bastards. His reaction to the rest of the bunk catching up to him on who the traitor is derives from paternal head patting. He’s not a cynic in the Wilder sense, but a realist. and that makes him kind of less interesting.
And less interesting is par for the course here. Otto Preminger, as the camp’s commandant, is about a lousy actor as he is director. Most of the shots are from the same perspective, with even his usual wonderful cinematography lightened up to keep the audience feeling comfortable the entire time.
In summary: Wilder chickened out after Ace in the Hole bombed. This is the result.
Billy Wilder did play it safe after Ace in the Hole flopped not once but twice and decided to adapt a very successful play but he still made a very enjoyable film in my opinion. He didn’t play it as safe as making Double Indemnity 2: Double Down and still decided to create a movie that made light of a very serious subject in POW and WWII. 50 years later someone would even take it a step further and make a Holocaust comedy with Life is Beautiful but I think Wilder did it much better. The characters are broad and I think that is the point because you think you are going to get a broad comedy and then it switches to something a little bit more. Imagine a Kevin James movie all of the sudden becoming something William Friedkin would make and that is what this movie does.
I can’t defend Otto Preminger’s work in this film because he is pretty broad. I can see why there was bad blood between this and Hogan’s Heroes because the Nazi’s were very similar in both pieces. While I can’t defend Preminger’s acting I do have one question, do you think this could have been on purpose? Mel Brooks, another one of my favorite directors, made a career out of poking fun at both Hitler and Nazi’s and when asked why he did it, he said this. “If you stand on a soapbox and trade rhetoric with a dictator you never win,that’s what they do so well; they seduce people. But if you ridicule them, bring them down with laughter–they can’t win. You show how crazy they are.” I don’t know if Wilder was doing the same thing but it is in the realm of possibility.
Stalag 17 is a Wilder movie that might not reach the heights of the 3 previous movies of his and is “safer” but one I have always enjoyed. It is amazing that we have done 10 of these pieces and this is the first time we have really disagreed although I know a bigger argument is on the horizon with Seven Year Itch. Any final thoughts?
I see what you mean with the Mel Brooks remark– making the Nazis buffoons is a clever way of mocking their ideology. Though I don’t think you give the Nazis enough credit here– Schulz managed to fool all of the POWs pretty handily. If he and Price had just checked to see that the room was empty before they plotted, they may have gotten away with everything.
Speaking of Price, I did want to say that I think that Peter Graves did a great job here. We don’t learn who the traitor is right away, but Graves’ uptight mannerisms as well as Price’s very subtle reluctance to mock the Nazis make him a dead giveaway the second time through.
There’s something interesting about the soldiers here, as well, and that’s who the film’s narrator is. In most Wilder films that use narration, you’ve got the main character telling you his story, slanting it to his favor. Here we actually get a fairly ancillary character named Cookie doing the duties. I’d say that this is a textbook case of unnecessary narration most of the time, since its existence is merely to add another wax sheet of nostalgia over the proceedings. It’s not a thriller, it’s a playful guy on the sidelines reminiscing about this one time this one thing happened and how he saw it all. If Cookie’s narration here didn’t serve as a forebear of A Christmas Story, I’d be surprised.
But getting back to your point, I don’t think it’s wrong for Wilder to make a comedy about POWs. You bring up “Hogan’s Heroes”, Ryan, and I’m glad you did: this is a sitcom. Wilder never makes the stakes or the situation real, and with the lazy narration it never stops feeling like a warm blanket. Even the escalation, that results in murder and an escape, is less thrilling than perfunctory.
The point of the film, when it isn’t talking about how great ‘Our Boys’ were, may actually be about the danger of non-conformity. Sefton’s schemes and desires to make the war cozy for himself arouse all of the other POWs anger. Sefton is the only one of them who won’t pretend that they’re a big huge family, and is ostracized and eventually beaten for it. When he finally proves his worth, by helping the family out, saving a fellow family member by exposing a fraud, he’s welcomed back in. I’m willing to bet if someone other than Sefton had fingered Price, the animosity between Sefton and the men would have remained.
This is the last movie about World War II that Wilder ever made. He started with borderline propaganda, made a documentary about the film’s horrors, moved onto pre-war Austria, post-war Berlin, and now is back, poking his fingers at the Nazis. I’m not sure if eight years was enough time for him to forgive and forget, but this doesn’t feel like a Billy Wilder movie to me. It doesn’t feel like much of anything, really.