IMDB #199 Stalag 17

We break the 200 barrier with the rarely seen prisoner-of-war comedy subgenre, 1953's Stalag 17. "Dramedy" might be a better term, though- we wouldn't want to confuse the tone of such a classic with "Hogan's Heroes."

I mean, sure, there's cross-dressing, near-ubiquitous cross-eyed mugging, and easy laughs, but sometimes people get shot.

The Key Players:

Nice to see you again, Billy Wilder. First alcoholism, now WWII- where will you take us next?

Academy Award-winning star William Holden also appeared on this blog two years and twenty three years later ago, if that makes any sense.

Noted director Otto Preminger takes a rare turn in front of the camera in support, along with the late Peter Graves ("Mission: Impossible") among many others.

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The Story:

Based on the hugely successful play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski (who cameos in the film), Stalag 17 is the story of inmates in a German POW camp somewhere on the blue Danube river. It opens in December 1944, right during the middle of the Battle of the Bulge- from the German side of the line, it sounds like the tides are turning against the Allies.

Barracks 4 mounts an escape attempt, sending two men out with fake papers and civlian clothes through an underground tunnel, but unlike the "Hogan's Heroes" tunnels (which were endless in number and always lead to safety), this one leads the men to gunfire before they even reach the forest.

Holden, a cynical, caustic grifter, callously wagers cigarettes with the other POWs on this very outcome, and cleans up when the shots start firing. The next day, the smirking Stalag commandant (Preminger) orders the men to fill in the tunnel, and takes away the wood stove that covered the entrance- information that had yet to be discovered.

Talk of a mole quickly starts, and suspicion immediately falls on Holden, who brazenly fries an egg for breakfast that he's bartered with the German guards for. He's built up a surplus of cigarrettes and other goods by setting up a distillery, taking bets on literal rat-races, and improvising a telescope to peek at the nearby Russian women prisoner's camp.

In coming days, the mole provides information that gets the barracks' secret radio confiscated, and gets a recently arrived-Lieutenant arrested as a sabateour after he mentions blowing up a German artillery train. Sefton maintains innocence, but the prisoners rough him up in frustration.

Even Holden's friend and assistant Cookie (also our narrator) starts to wonder who the mole might really be...

The Artistry:

There are a lot of broad comedy bits in Stalag 17 that don't really work for me, most of them involving either Sig Ruman Sergeant Schultz (the German guard) or Robert Strauss and Harvey Lembeck reprising their stage roles as an antic comic duo of POWs (an oaf and a wiseguy, respectively). It might be because things like "M*A*S*H" would have the time to do wartime silliness with more restraint, though- and I did enjoy some parts, like Strauss's gravely exchange of "At ease!" with a whiny voiced messenger.

But everything with Holden jumps off the screen- he plays a classic antihero, and does it to a T. Holden reportedly turned down the part initially because it wasn't very sympathetic- he begged Wilder to give him a line about how much he hates the Nazis, to no avail.

Preminger plays the sort of classic smiling and cruel Nazi that everyone went gaga over Christoph Waltz putting a new spin on- flashy and simmeringly particular. I loved the part when he puts on his boots to call his superiors in Berlin on the phone.

The decision to reveal the traitor with 40 minutes (out of two hours) to go works very well for the pace, as ambiguious intrigue gives way to full-on dramatic tension.


After sussing out the mole's message system of a hollowed-out chess piece (and a light bulb cord as a signal), Holden discovers that a man named Price (Graves) is a German-born spy posing as a G.I. from Cleveland. He'd been elected security chief of the barracks, and had all of the sensitive information necessary to tip off the guards.

This leaves him in a quandary- if Price gets wise that he's been made, he'll just leave and be sent to spy on another Barracks somewhere. If he kills him, the Nazis might retaliate by killig everyone.

Things come to a head when the Lieutenant accused of sabotage is about to be marched off to be executed. The prisoners hatch a plan to hide him from the guards- to make sure Price can't interfere, Holden cannily argues that the security chief should stay behind to guard him, to make sure that Holden (the suspected mole) doesn't give them away.

Finally, Holden breaks Price in front of everyone by grilling him on his fake American past, and catches him when Price claims he was eating dinner when Pearl Harbor was attacked (It was lunchtime in the states, dinnertime in Berlin).

Holden goes to escape with the lieutenant to safety, while the rest push Price out of the barracks as a distraction (the guards shoot him, as they do anyone out after dark).


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

I think higher, on the whole. As far as the silly parts go, they amplify the impact of the dead-serious moments rather well. Holden holds it all together in a classic lead role.

The Legacy:

Strauss and Wilder also earned Oscar nominations, and Stalag is one of the definitive WWII POW films along with The Great Escape and The Bridge On The River Kwai.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Not too many clips, but the beginning of this clip has my favorite Holden vs. the rest scene. "You've put 2 and 2 together and it comes out 4, only it ain't 4!"

Leftover Thoughts:

-A lot of lipservice is paid to the Geneva Conventions in this movie. Remember when people cared about those dusty old things? Good times.

-Did prisoners of war really get mail delivered? This seems dubious to me.

-"One more word. If I ever run into any of you bums on a street corner... just let's pretend we never met before."

Coming Up...

198. Kill Bill Vol. 2

197. Shadow Of A Doubt

196. Sleuth (1972)

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