When it’s on: Wednesday, 22 April (11.00 am)
Whilst not on the top table of films directed by Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Ace in the Hole, Sunset Boulevard and The Apartment, for my money) Stalag 17 is certainly interesting and stays in the mind for some time after having watched it. It’s adapted from a play, which was written by two war veterans about their experiences as prisoners in an Austrian camp, by all accounts a tedious and melancholic existence of men cooped up together. I’ve chosen the above poster deliberately as I think it conveys well the cramped living conditions experienced by the men, though don’t be fooled by the blanket wearing blonde – she represents the Russian women who are confined in the neighbouring bunker, distant objects of lust to the men starved of female companionship.
The story takes place in 1944. American Sergeants who have been captured by Germany are being held in Stalag 17 in Austria, and find they’re treated well enough. They can have a laugh with their jovial guard Schulz (Sig Ruman), and the Commandant is a decent fellow (played by Otto Preminger) who only makes one request – no escape attempts. That’s fine where Sefton (William Holden) is concerned. Settling down to an opportunist’s life of organising horse racing events – mice do the racing – and selling moonshine, Sefton is the classic small-time capitalist, happy to eke out the remainder of the war at the Germans’ expense because he knows that if he does get away he’ll be plunged straight back into the conflict, possibly even the dreaded Pacific theatre.
For everyone else, day follows monotonous day. There’s a neat thread of gallows humour in the movie, featuring desperately bored men doing crazy things to have a craic or wind each other up. The Betty Grable obsessed Animal (Robert Strauss) and his pal, Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck), come up with an unlikely whitewashing stunt in an attempt to make it into the next camp and acquaint with the Russian women. Life goes on. The trouble is that escape attempts are made. At the start of the film, two men use a tunnel they’ve dug beneath the bunker to flee the camp, only to run into an armed squadron outside, obviously prepared, and they’re gunned down. The clear indication is that someone inside Stalag 17 is a traitor, feeding the Germans information about everything that’s happening, and the finger of suspicion is pointed squarely at Sefton, the one who seems to enjoy the easiest relationship and enjoy the most perks with his captors. Sefton hasn’t helped himself by betting against the escape ending successfully. As the two mens’ bodies are left outside as a grisly warning, the feelings against Sefton start turning violent. It leaves him in the most difficult position, alleging himself to be innocent yet not believed and forced to spend his days alongside people who now hate him.
Stalag 17 is told from the perspective of Cookie (Gil Stratton), Sefton’s dogsbody and an observer who can make out the downbeat emotional tenor of the bunker. It’s his experience we follow, and for the time it was quite new to witness a war film without much action or any real heroics, let alone a character that can be identified as the ‘hero’ figure. That certainly isn’t Sefton, cynical and hard-edged, making it clear that he’s only looking out for himself. Holden was reluctant to take the part, seeing few redeeming qualities in his character, though it can certainly be argued it’s a realistic one and there are moments, as he faces exile from the other Americans whilst siting alongside them, that he can quietly analyse what’s going on to unearth the real traitor. As Stalag 17 did well both commercially and with the critics, Holden clinched an Oscar for his portrayal, albeit one deferred from his previous work with Wilder on Sunset Boulevard, and helped to set the tone for prisoner of war anti-heroes in numerous films and TV shows that followed.
The mystery at the heart of the film is only one element, though, with much time elsewhere devoted to the day to day goings on, the Americans’ efforts to win cheap victories over their captors by masking their smuggled radio wires, the hi-jinks of Animal and Shapiro, the monotonous routines with no one knowing how long they are going to have to eke it out for. Whilst lacking some of the more brutal sights of other ‘prisoner’ films, it sets an atmosphere of quiet despair and rootlessness, and whilst it succeeds in the depiction it takes a very long time to make viewers share their conditions. There’s a much tauter film at the heart of Stalag 17, but any suspense struggles to emerge amidst the drudgery.
Stalag 17: ***