Billy Wilder made a habit of directing films that are arguably the quintessential examples of their genre. In 1944’s Double Indemnity he defined the film noir genre. Then in 1950 Sunset Boulevard hit the big screen, perhaps the best film to ever tackle Hollywood itself. With Stalag 17, a film released in 1953, he directed what many people consider to be the greatest Prisoner of War (POW) film ever released. Of course, fans of The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Great Escape may argue the toss, but Stalag 17 is up there with the best of them.
Set in 1944, the film focuses on the titular Luftwaffe POW camp where 640 American captured sergeants reside alongside Polish, Czech and Russian captives. It is narrated by Clarence “Cookie” Cook (Gil Stratton), reminiscing on his time in the camp. The opening sequence shows two men trying to escape from the camp, whilst the remaining men in their block argue with Sefton (William Holden) about their potential success at escaping as he takes their bets. As the only person sure of their failure, Sefton wins a large supply of cigarettes from his comrades. As the men come around to the thought that their failure may have been caused by a tip off to one of the Nazi officers, suspicion falls on the ever-cynical Sefton, who appears to be profiting nicely from various trades and deals far more than anyone else held captive. Unwilling to protest his innocence, Sefton resolves to find the real informer and expose him before another there are any more casualties.
What strikes most prominently about this film is its inclination towards comedy. It is certainly rooted in the seriousness of being held as a POW in Nazi Germany, but the comradeship and light-heartedness with which the Americans deal with their situation sets it apart from other films in this genre. It doesn’t just stop at the relationship between those of the same nationality. Indeed, it takes on quite a comical depiction of the relationship between the guards and the captives, illustrating a softer side to the Nazi officers that is seldom depicted elsewhere.
As the film progresses, however, the comical aspects fade somewhat to allow the seriousness of the situation to take centre stage. This contrast is less harsh than, say, Life is Beautiful (Roberto Benigni, 1997), but it works perfectly. The light-heartedness encourages the viewer to warm to all the characters quicker than would have otherwise been possible and by the time the final act plays out the tension is at its peak.
William Holden rightly won an Oscar for his performance as Sefton, spoiling the party that year for the likes of Marlon Brando (Julius Caeser) and Richard Burton (The Robe). The popularity of the film can be put down to two factors at the time. Firstly, the film was withheld from release until 1953 because Paramount Pictures didn’t believe anyone would be interested in a POW film; only when the release of prisoners following the end of the Korean War did it have a widespread political context (both the US release and the end of the Korean War occurred in July 1953). Secondly, the backdrop of the film industry itself was focused on the Hollywood Blacklist, a list of those industry professionals considered to be supportive of communism. This was at its height in 1953, but no studios would dare release a film to directly tackle these issues. The storyline of a lone man being singled-out by his peers based on false circumstantial evidence will no doubt have gained extra resonance against this ongoing issue.
Stalag 17 deserves to be seen, for its excellent performances, magnificent direction and historical relevance. With it being a Masters of Cinema release, there has never been a better time to check it out.
Stalag 17 is available to purchase now from Masters of Cinema on Blu-Ray.