Two packs of cigarettes say they don’t get out of the forest.
I almost went with one of the earliest lines in the movie: “What gets me is that there never was a movie about POWs – about prisoners of war.” Now, does he mean by 1953, the year of this movie, or does he mean 1944, when the movie is set? Either way, it wasn’t true, but I’ve never heard of the movies that prove him wrong.
POW Movies constitute a very strong subgenre to the War Movie genre. Stronger, I think surprisingly, than the Resistance subgenre (like Casablanca (1942) or Defiance (2008)), which benefits from the possibility of all-out action with taut thrills. Oddly, Resistance films rarely take advantage of the larger scale they might use in preference for romance (Casablanca), quiet waitings behind locked doors while boots stomp by (all of them), or tales of women’s action in the war (Charlotte Gray (2001)). Perhaps the POW film fits so well into an ensemble cast of stock characters that guarantees a charm and the story can, possibly, improve the whole.
Stalag 17 (1953), written and directed by Billy Wilder, follows the story of Barracks 4 in Stalag 17B, a camp for sergeants. There’s a snitch in the camp and we’re pretty sure he’s in Barracks 4. Sefton (William Holden, who won an Academy Award for this performance) is the cynical camp trader and scrounger who’s looking out for number one. As the kind of fella who would bet on whether the two escaping tonight will live to see tomorrow, suspicion falls pretty quickly on him as snitch. His trading skills are perhaps too good to believe when we get a look at the kind of loot he’s accumulated. Sefton proclaims innocence and now has a pretty mean eye out for the real spy in their midst.
This is not a dark film as its DVD cover suggests (see below). There is one joke that I cannot believe was allowed in 1953 (about the possible unfaithful behavior of one POW’s wife), but that’s about as dark as it gets. Some people get killed, but that’s all in the game. Really, this movie is more of a romp than it’s very close cousin, The Great Escape (1963), and if you’ve seen that movie, you’ll know that that’s saying something.
I can stand a romp so long as it’s got charm. I’m not so sure that charm is what Stalag 17 has. It has more of a routine. We’ve got the real story going along on top with a pair of clowns running around to keep things cheery. That’s alright, as far as it goes, but it goes too far when you’re basically splitting time between the plot and the clowns. That’s less a diversion than a competitor for theme.
The two clowns, Animal (Robert Strauss) and Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck), have on the brain the same as all male clowns: food and dames. For Animal, it’s Betty Grable. We hear and see Animal’s love of Grable more times than we get clues about the identity of the spy. Also, can you believe it, Strauss got an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. That, to me, is a very poor recommendation for the Oscars, but is saved somewhat because it went to Sinatra for From Here to Eternity (1953), which was an actual performance. They’re just too zany, too clowny and take the movie into a poorer place. Wilder does comedy even in his dramas, but the comedy usually more wit than prat-fall.
There are other issues I have in the way of story telling. Cookie (Gil Stratton) is Sefton’s childish lackey who narrates for some reason. The almost blatantly obvious narrator is Sefton himself. This comes three years after the other Wilder-Holden movie Sunset Blvd. (1950) in which Holden, the main character, narrates the movie and does it extremely well. Cookie isn’t funny. Maybe Wilder thought it was a kind of cheat to use that technique with such a similar character. Well, that was a mistake.
As I mentioned earlier, Holden won the Oscar for Best Actor for this movie. To the eight other wins for From Here to Eternity, they should have added a ninth for Montgomery Clift and changed the 1950 decision not to go with Holden in Sunset Blvd. Thems the breaks. Not bad for Holden considering he didn’t want the part. According to Wikipedia, he didn’t want the role because he was too cynical and selfish. Considering his next best role, in my opinion, is as another cynical, selfish POW in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), perhaps he learned his lesson.
Still, I’m being a little hard on a movie that I actually enjoyed. The thing is, I would have enjoyed it much more if the clowns were reduced or excised entirely, the narrator changed, and we made this thing into a real mystery. Still, it’s an enjoyable viewing. But one I would have survived without. I saw The Bridge on the River Kwai and I saw The Great Escape. Still, you can buy it if you want to, it’s pretty cheap on Amazon.
Once again, I call for the heads of DVD cover makers or movie poster designers. The poster I used, found on Wikipedia, is far more representative–though empty of much content–than this one to the right. This put me off watching the movie for years. I thought this was going to be a dreary movie about Russian gulags or something (note the black on red and barbed wire) and thought I’d have to be in a particular mood to see it. That’s at least half my fault because there is no such thing as a movie mood. I take that half back, because you can want a cheap action or comedy because you’re too tired to enjoy anything but the base. If you’re in an even temper, then you can watch anything at any time and enjoy it (as far as your tastes will allow).