Stalag 17 (1953)
Written by Edwin Blum & Billy Wilder
Directed by Billy Wilder
It’s strange to say that Billy Wilder’s film about Americans in a Nazi prisoner of war camp is the most light-hearted of his movies I’ve watched so far. But that is most definitely the case. I almost wonder if Wilder took a step back from the bleak tone of his previous work, especially after Ace in the Hole was received so poorly by American audiences. Stalag 17 is much more of a “cheer for the heroes” type of film, but Wilder still manages to make the main protagonist buck conventions.
In 1944, 640 U.S. sergeants were held in a Nazi compound, captured behind enemy lines. They constantly plot escapes and sabotage but are foiled at every turn by guards who seem to expect them. Suspicion grows towards Sefton, an operator who has amassed a treasure trove of cigarettes and other valuables that he uses to bribe the guards and mostly have his run of the camp. As Christmas comes closer, the homesickness gets worse for the soldiers, but the arrival of Lt. Dunbar boosts morale. Dunbar explains he was responsible for a bomb that derailed a supply train to the front. Once again, the stoolie leaks this information, and Dunbar has a target on his back. But appearances in the barracks may not be what they seem.
Stalag 17 began life as a Broadway play written by two former American prisoners of war. After some moderate success, Wilder and Edwin Blum decided to adapt it for the screen but did substantial rewrites. The studio wanted a big name for Sefton, preferably a Charlton Heston or Kirk Douglas. Wilder went with former collaborator William Holden (Sunset Boulevard), who I think captures the anti-hero vibe much better than those other Hollywood leading men. Wilder also did the unusual in shooting the film chronologically and keeping the identity of the stoolie secret from the cast until three days before filming the reveal.
One aspect of the film that I enjoyed and was likely Wilder’s meta-commentary is the opening narration as one of the prisoners, Cookie, talks about disliking Hollywood war movies because they overdramatize things. He states that these movies always feature spectacular battle scenes and wishes he could see something the highlighted the mundane, everyday qualities of living in a prisoner of war camp. And that is what we get, a very episodic slice of life story for the most part. There’s an underlying narrative of the traitor in their midst, but most of the movie plays things light.
Wilder uses the characters of Animal and Shapiro for the core of the comedic relief, a duo who find themselves getting into cartoonish situations. They pretend to be painting lines for the road into the camp as a means to sneak over to the area where female Russians are kept. Animal is obsessed with Betty Grable, and during the Christmas Eve dance in the barracks, he drunkenly imagines Shapiro is Grable and starts dancing cheek to cheek with him. Other tiny moments bring humor to an otherwise humorless situation. One soldier gets word from his wife that a baby was delivered to their doorstep that looks just like her and forcibly convinces himself to believe the ludicrous story. Another soldier is known for his celebrity impressions and finds opportunities to roll them out when appropriate.
Sefton is the most fascinating part of the film, a parallel to the Red Scare paranoia overtaking America at the time. He’s a loner that has no interest in forging bonds of camaraderie with the other boys. This is the main reason why he’s immediately suspected of turning against them. Even when he’s inevitably revealed to not be the stoolie (it’s of course too obvious that it’d be him), Sefton still makes sure his fellow prisoners know he doesn’t like them and is only helping them for his own gain. In many ways, Wilder created a lasting legacy through William Holden by casting him as a reluctant hero, a role Holden would go on to play in many more films. That archetype has since become a Hollywood standard, and it started with this film.