STALAG 17, 1953
Cast: Don Taylor, William Holden, Harvey Lembeck, Otto Preminger, Robert Strauss, Richard Erdman, Peter Graves
When two escaping American World War II prisoners are killed, the German POW camp barracks black marketeer, J.J. Sefton, is suspected of being an informer.
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As far as war films go, this one stands apart. It's not the shoot 'em up, macho war film the genre has become synonymous with. It certainly doesn't glorify was either. It lies somewhere in between, somewhere more in the reality of the situation. Unlike war films that take place on the front lines of the battle field, amidst gunfire, screaming soldiers, and blood shed, this one takes a more psychological approach behind the barricades of prison life. Its Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 (1953).
Though plugged as a dramatic war film, this film has the Wilder touch, including breaks of comic relief. The characters are anything but one dimensional, making the film even more intriguing to watch. Also the plot is simple to follow, but also digs deep at times, intertwining interesting plot twists. Though itís not like other war films, it does an excellent job of depicting the realism of World War II and the struggles soldiers faced. Itís often controversial whether or not itís morally right to depict war for entertainment value, but this film has a great balance.
Based on a play of the same name, Stalag 17 immediately grips the audienceís attention when two American soldiers attempt to escape from a German prison camp during World War II. They are subsequently shot, killed, and their bodies are brought back to the camp to be made an example of. Immediately the other prisoners suspect one of their own to be a German spy, particularly, Sefton (William Holden, who won a Best Actor Oscar for this role), who often steps up as the barrackís ringleader.
Though the lives of the prisoners are pretty awful, they do share moments of pleasure, particularly when they get a peepshow into the neighboring womanís camp. Also, Christmas is approaching and the heart ache and homesickness of the prisoners silently, and sometimes not so silently, echoes through the barracks. Things get even worse for the men when they learn that one of their peers is to be removed and interrogated for something he did not do. They decide to hide him in the camp to escape from the German guards. But once again, they do not know who they can really trust. The uneasiness and constant speculation in the barracks resonates with the audience. But when we, the audience, find who the real trader is, we want nothing but justice.
Stalag 17 reigns so supreme because of what it does not show. Unlike many war films, it does not need to rely on gratuitous violence or convoluted plots to tell a good story. It definitely doesnít lack in quality filmmaking because of it either. Instead, it concentrates on the diverse group of characters and the extreme situation they unfortunately find themselves in. Itís a great study of the human condition and the extremes people will go to when they are pushed to the limit.
The film uses comic relief wonderfully, used meticulously by Wilder. Along with the prisoners, the audience often needs comedy thrown into the mix. It's these guys' saving power. They have nothing but their good humor to get them through the day. Two characters, Harry and Cookie, provide much of the comic relief and bring with them a whole new dimension of characterization.
Also, because it doesnít have to concentrate on gun fights and big battle scenes, it allows time for the audience to become invested in these characters. We feel their pain and understand their lonesomeness. Itís heart wrenching to watch these grown men get so excited over one egg that they receive. Itís painful to see them have to decide how to cook it. We generally care for their well being and like the prisoners, itís also killing us when we donít know who the villain is. It definitely keeps its audience on edge, in a different way than an intense action scene would, but just as effective, if not more so. Itís an extremely realistic portrayal of war, in an unlikely way.