Stalag 17 is not the original prisoner-of-war film, nor the first escape film. Its most notable predecessors include such films as Mervyn LeRoy’s I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) and Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion (1937).
But Billy Wilder’s adaptation of Bevan and Trzcinski’s hit 1951 comedy/melodrama was the first World War II P.O.W. film, so indelibly expressed that its style and ideas were copied by all P.O.W./escape movies to follow. However, all subsequent films on the same theme omit a key Wilder trait — he subverts the norms of the subgenre even as he codifies them. Wilder’s version of Stalag 17 is deeply cynical, undermining standard concepts of heroic behavior, the virtues of democracy, and even common decency itself.
Wilder was in between the two remarkable partnerships that resulted in his most honored films. His first collaborator, writer/producer Charles Brackett, broke off with him after Sunset Boulevard (1950), and he hadn’t yet teamed up with I.A.L. Diamond, who would remain his creative teammate from Love in the Afternoon (1957) to the end of their careers.
He was also in between hits. His cynical newspaper epic Ace in the Hole (1951) was a box-office flop, and Paramount warned him that his next film for them would need to not only pay for itself, but make up for the previous film’s deficits as well. Wilder turned to Broadway for successful source material.
Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, who wrote the hit play on which the film was based, were real-life prisoners of war. Wilder kept the play’s structure but then rewrote most of the dialogue, sharpening its pessimism. Certain of the play’ cast wound up in the film, most notably Robert Strauss and Harvey Lembeck as the play’s comic relief (Strauss garnered an Oscar nomination in the role).
We are deep in enemy territory, in a prison camp run by the Nazis and occupied by hundreds of idle Allied sergeants. It’s Christmas week of 1944, when the Battle of the Bulge made it seem that Hitler’s forces were resurging. The mood is bitter. Scores of young men trained for action are trapped, forced into passivity. One activity that gives them a sense of purpose is to attempt escape.
But these prisoners can’t even accomplish that. Someone is betraying their plans to the guards. Who’s the spy?
The script was shot in relative chronological order on a standing set, with the addition of a few location exteriors. Cinematographer Ernest Laszlo overcame the cramped confines of the setting by executing lots of slow dolly shots in and around the barracks, making it seem positively roomy.
The look of the film is gray and muddy — every object in sight is stained and worn. Like their surroundings, Wilder delineates the prisoners in unheroic terms. Demoralized, they slide into behavior and attitudes that are miles away from their stereotypical bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed American selves. Democracy does not come off well — it seems to lead to a population divided against itself, ready to crucify a designated scapegoat. The majority of the prisoners are rabble, easily swayed into lashing out at whatever suspect is offered up to them.
And the suspect offered up to them is the wily Sefton (William Holden), a sarcastic wheeler-dealer whose relatively cushy status in the camp is due to his constant trading with the guards. (Holden rankled at the character’s darkness and kept asking for a line or two that would establish his anti-Nazi sentiments. Wilder refused.)
Holden’s Sefton is, ironically, the most typical American in the film. He’s a hustler, a savvy black-market dealer in goods and favors. In other words, a successful capitalist. There is no room for sentiment inside Sefton’s skull. His thinking focuses on calculating the risk, weighing the odds. His scorn for teamwork and fair play makes him a likely candidate for abuse. ‘This ain’t no Salvation Army! This is everybody for himself, dog eat dog,” he exclaims.
Holden won his only Oscar for this role (Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas were briefly considered for it), and he does a fine job of imparting humanity to a repellent character, the kind he referred to as the “bastard with a heart of gold.” (Seldon’s one moment of compassion is unspoken — he shares a black-market egg with a shell-shocked prisoner.) Seldon resolutely denies the value of teamwork. Group action here is synonymous with the breeding of prejudice, suspicion, and miscarriage of justice. “Why don’t you get a rope and do it right?” Seldon snarls as he’s attacked.
The only person on Sefton’s side is the director, and he keeps us on Sefton’s side even though he exhibits no redeeming qualities. “Suddenly you see that the guy they have beaten up because they think, as the audience does, that he is a shit . . . slowly, slowly he emerges as a superhero,” said Wilder.
He forces us to accept Sefton for what he is, and to eventually share his morally unencumbered viewpoint. Only he and we know the truth. Once it’s revealed to us we can’t help but interrogate the mechanics of the escape thriller — the elaborate security system, the teamwork, the grim good humor. It all begins to seem like boys playing silly, dangerous games.
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Stalag 17 (1953 USA 120 mins)
Prod. Co: Paramount Pictures Prod: Billy Wilder, William Schorr Dir: Billy Wilder Scr: Billy Wilder and Edwin Blum, based on the play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski Phot: Ernest Laszlo Ed: George Tomasini Art Dir: Franz Bachelin, Hal Pereira Music: Franz Waxman
Cast: William Holden, Otto Preminger, Robert Strauss, Richard Erdman, Peter Graves