1953 / Best Director

Film #609: Stalag 17 (1953)

In the past on this blog I’ve been very critical of films adapted from stage plays as most of them struggle to be cinematic. That would certainly be a problem you would think would hamper Billy Wilder’s adaptation of Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski’s stage play Stalag 17 especially seeing as it’s entirely based in the rather static surroundings of a World War II Prisoner of War camp. However, due to Wilder’s directorial flair, I felt that Stalg 17 sidestepped the pitfalls that befall most stage play adaptations to become a film that I thought was both engrossing and rewarding.

The film starts with a fourth-wall breaking voiceover from one of Stalag 17’s inmates Cookie who talks about how no war movies depict what happens within the confines of a prisoner of war camp. This line was particularly interesting when you learn that the film’s release was temporarily halted after the bosses at Paramount Pictures were sceptical that anybody would want to watch a film based in a prisoner of war camp. However, I believe that Wilder did a good job at hooking them in early with an intense escape sequence involving two prisoners whose efforts are ultimately thwarted by the German guards. Annoying his fellow campmates is William Holden’s JJ Sefton who correctly bet that the two escapees wouldn’t make it past the fence and in doing so won all of his comrades’ cigarettes. Sefton is painted as a realist in a camp full of dreamers and someone who is able to bribe the guards in exchange for privileges that the other prisoners don’t receive. As the film progresses, other members of his camp believe that he’s feeding information to the Germans as he receives a trip to the neighbouring women’s camp shortly after their hidden radio is discovered and confiscated. Suspicions intensify further with the arrival of newcomer Lt. Dunbar, with whom Sefton has an ongoing rivalry due to the fact that Dunbar’s family was much richer than his. Dunbar is eventually charged with blowing up a train and, believing Sefton fed this information to the guards, he is beaten up by the rest of his campmates. This assault then drives Sefton to root out the real mole in the camp and finally by exposing them at the most opportune moment for both the characters on screen and the audiences watching the drama play out.

One of Stalag 17’s best elements is the fact that it doesn’t play as a straight drama and I do feel that Wilder’s flair for comedy direction helps the film significantly. Although the tense moments are well played, especially Sefton’s discovery of who the real mole in the camp is, I feel if the film were all played at this level then it wouldn’t have the same realistic tone that it ultimately achieves. This is best exemplified through the character of ‘Animal’, a rough-and-ready member of the camp whose obsession with actress Betty Grable provides a neat comic subplot to the rest of the events. There are also secondary comic characters such as the camp’s rather jovial German guard Schultz and Marko the Mailman whose deliver of the line ‘at ease’ gives the movie one of its most endearing running jokes. Despite the fact that everything in Stalag 17 feels a little heightened the tone is never preposterous and this is due to Wilder grounding the central characters of the piece most notably Sefton. Sefton is indeed a character who is hard to like and at the start Wilder and his co-writers make the viewers suspect that he could well be the villain of the piece. But throughout the film we come to understand that he’s a survivor, someone who’s making the most of his surroundings and doesn’t necessarily see it as a good idea to join the crowd. Sefton’s rise to heroics by the film’s final scenes don’t seem far-fetched and his ‘playing of the odds’ fits with what we’ve been told about the character up to that point.

Aside from the way the character has been written, the other reason Sefton works as the central figure of Stalag 17 is due to the grounded turn from William Holden. After watching his over-the-top turn in Sabrina, it was refreshing to see Holden at his best here as he delivered every line perfectly. Even the way he sat on his bunk made you suspicious of Sefton’s motives and Holden was perfect at playing the intelligent outsider in a hut full of hot-headed comrades. Although I did enjoy Holden’s turn, I found it to be one part of a rather impressive ensemble which also included great turns from an Oscar-nominated Robert Strauss as Animal and from Peter Graves as the hut’s security officer Price. Therefore, I found it surprising that Stalag 17 was the film for which Holden won his only Best Actor Oscar as he wasn’t on screen all that much and a lot of the times Sefton was simply in the background of scenes. Holden theorised that his Oscar win was to compensate for not being rightfully rewarded three years earlier for his most memorable role as Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard. Furthermore, he correctly suggested that his Oscar should have gone to either Burt Lancaster or Gregory Peck for their equally stunning turns in that year’s Best Picture winner From Here to Eternity. In my opinion, Peck and Lancaster probably split the vote meaning that Holden’s reliable turn in Stalag 17 was ultimately rewarded with a Best Actor win. I’ll assess whether Stalag 17 deserved a Best Picture nod in a future post but I definitely think that Wilder did well in presenting a film that felt like a realistic depiction of a Prisoner of War Camp whilst at the same time not making the tone of the movie too dark. It also was a groundbreaking movie in terms of its setting although it would only take another four years for a film set in a POW camp to win Best Picture that of course being David Lean’s brilliant The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Next time we journey to 1958 for a film that was full of Hollywood glamour but took liberties with its true story.

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