Now, I know what you’re thinking – isn’t this the Oscar-winning war movie starring William Holden, the one that got ripped off and turned into that silly 1960s sitcom, Hogan’s Heroes? Wasn’t this film a big hit in its day? How can it thus be considered overlooked – and what’s so Christmassy about it? And also, who in their right mind would ever consider it as belonging to the crime genre – it’s a prison escape drama, right? Well, I realise that this classic POW movie, adapted by writer-director Billy Wilder from a Broadway hit, may not be everybody’s idea of either a mystery or a Yuletide classic but I think I can make a pretty good case. We begin the week before Christmas in 1944 and things are bad …
The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected. It is my last such offering for 2012 but hope to see you soon early next year.
“I don’t know about you but it always makes me sore seeing those war pictures, all about flying leathernecks, and submarine patrols, and frogmen, and guerillas in the Philippines. What gets me is that there never was a movie about P.O.W.s … I spent two and a half years in Stalag 17 … There was more fireworks shooting off around that joint – take for instance the story about the spy we had in our barracks”
The story is narrated by ‘Cookie’ (played by Gil Stratton), one of 630 American flyers (all sergeants) held in a POW camp in Germany not far from the Danube – he is also a character original in the film and not found in the original play, which was mostly stripped of its dialogue with only the plot and main characters left intact. ‘Cookie’ is also the best friend of JJ Sefton (Holden), a scrounger who manages to turn everything into an opportunity (for himself). If you need cigarettes or a knife or even an egg, Sefton is your man – he is thus a necessity, but one who is barely tolerated. He has no wish to escape or win the war – he merely intends to survive it. In this respect, the character is a clear forerunner of ‘King Rat’, the eponymous anti-hero of James Clavell’s 1962 novel was set in Changi Prison and which was, from the outset, not a story of escape but of survival. That was a particularly dark and dour story but Stalag 17, while undeniably cynical and on occasional even brutal, is leavened by some quite broad humour courtesy of Robert Strauss as the lovelorn ‘Animal’ (he’s obsessed with Betty Grable) and his buddy Harry Shapiro played by Harvey Lembeck, reprising their performances from the original stage production. It is their antics that largely allowed the film to be marketed as a comedy though really they are just the light relief along with Sig Rumann’s Nazi sergeant Schultz, who is also largely played largely for laughs – well, until we realise that there really is a spy among them men, the signal for a secret message given when a loop is tied in a light cord above the chess board. This is only revealed some 35 minutes into the film and will then become the focus for the next hour or so as we try to find out who it is who is passing on all the POWs’ secret plans to the Nazis.
The structure of the film, which was apparently shot largely in sequence and modified quite considerably from the play, is quite close to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with Sefton as a kind of Scrooge. We see his past in flashbacks showing his various activities as a hustler in the camp, despised but crucial to the economy of the men’s lives; then there is the present in which everything turns sour as escape plans are foiled and lead to death despair with Sefton eventually blamed even though there is no real evidence that he is the traitor. The angriest of all his accusers is ‘Duke’, played by real-life war hero Neville Brand who became a fine character actor in dozens of movies. They exact a terrible revenge, beating Sefton within an inch of his life and stealing all his ‘stock’. He now has a vested interest in uncovering the real spy … What will his future hold? I don’t want to over-emphasise the similarities in tone, but merely to point to Wilder’s smart use of Dickens’ well-established structure for his movie to help keep the theme universal.
“I understand how you feel – sort of rough. One American squealing on other Americans. Then again Cookie, maybe that stoolie’s not an American at all, maybe he’s a German the krauts planted in this barracks. They do that sometimes, just put an agent in with us, a trained specialist. A lot of loose information floating around …”
Originally staged just 6 years after the end of the Second World War, Wilder allegedly ended up buying the rights to the play with his own money ($50,000) as no one could see its commercial potential despite it being a Broadway hit that ultimately ran for 472 performances. Wilder, in collaboration with Edwin Blum, reshaped the story and changed the main character – originally fashioned for Charlton Heston, Wilder made the character increasingly bitter and sardonic, much more suitable for William Holden who had played a similar character in Wilder’s previous hit, Sunset Boulevard (1950) and who would refine the character in later films such as Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). He is exceptional in a very difficult role, making such a dark character sympathetic and certainly deserved the recognition he received from the Academy when he got an Oscar for the film.
Franz Waxman’s music score is quite minimalist, mainly variations of ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again’, but is well in keeping with the bare look of the film, as befits the realistic subject matter. Having said that, many of the most memorable moments are both sad and comedic, such as the Christmas party in which all the men dance with each other and ‘Animal’ mistakes Shapiro for Betty Grable. it’s hard to believe, but at the time this was considered quite controversial for its sexual undertones, though ‘Animal’s sadness when he realise he hasn’t been dancing with Betty Grable, is as sad as it is ridiculous, borne of desperation and loneliness. Other roles are also played quite broadly and Otto Preminger certainly has a great time playing a sort of mean caricature of Santa, giving presents in time for a visit by the inspectors from Geneva but then taking it all away again. Preminger was already well-established at a caricature of the Teutonic Hollywood director, screaming at his actors and browbeating them into submission – but he had started out as an actor in Austria but being a Jew soon left for America and had played Nazis in Hollywood movies several times including the Bob Hope comedy thriller, They Got Me Covered (1943). He’s great here as the villain of the piece, very easy to hate as the sense of jeopardy is ever-present. Thus the film works on many levels though its never forgets the mystery element – Along with the eventual unmasking of who the traitor is, there are many other teasing puzzles – such as how a lieutenant was able to create a homemade time bomb while in custody and how he is then able to vanish from the camp under the Nazi’s guard.
When Johnny comes marching home again
We’ll give him a hearty welcome then
The men will cheer and the boys will shout
The ladies they will all turn out
And we’ll all feel gay
When Johnny comes marching home.
The influence of this successful combination of theatrical intimacy, comic camaraderie and mystery plot and even the Christmas atmosphere, are well in evidence in subsequent POW films. Notable examples include Don Chaffey’s The Danger Within from 1959 (from the novel ‘Death in Captivity’ by Michael Gilbert, adapted by Bryan Forbes who later filmed King Rat with George Segal), Lamont Johnson’s The Mackenzie Break (1971), which unusually looks at events from the POV of German prisoners, and more recently the Bruce Willis / Colin Farrel drama Hart’s War (adapted in 2002 from the novel by John Katzenbach). Also of note in the Emmy-winning TV-movie starring Walter Matthau, The Incident (1990), set in a German POW camp on the US mainland with Peter Firth. All are well worth seeing, but none are as good at Stalag 17.
DVD Availability: Easily available in decent if barebones DVD editions worldwide as well as a special edition from Region 1. All sport decent transfers in the original 4:4 aspect ratio.
Stalag 17 (1953)
Director: Billy Wilder
Producer: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Billy Wilder and Edwin Blum (based on the play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski)
Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo
Art Direction: Franz Bachelin and Hal Pereira
Music: Franz Waxman
Cast: William Holden, Otto Preminger, Don Taylor, Peter Graves, Robert Strauss, Sig Rumann, Neville Brand