Grimly hilarious, subversive and defiant, rough around the edges, and more than a little sad, Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 may have been the inspiration for TV’s "Hogan’s Heroes," but this is no campy farce. The desperation here is real, the ridicule of the buffoonish German sergeant (Sig Ruman) hollow bravado.
Set in a Nazi POW camp (or stalag) holding some 600 American troops, the film stars William Holden as a cynical black marketeer whose hard-nosed pessimism about his fellow prisoners’ ill-fated escape attempts brings him under suspicion as a Nazi mole. Don Taylor plays a new prisoner whose exploits prior to capture make him a special target. The search for the stoolie turns into a race against time to help the new prisoner escape before he is executed for espionage. Famously dictatorial director Otto Preminger (Saint Joan) plays the formidable camp commandant as a variation on the character created by his fellow countryman and director von Stroheim in an earlier POW-camp escape movie, La Grande Illusion, though he has none of that character’s tragic, naive nobility.
The greatness of La Grande Illusion was in its rigorously humanistic regard for all its characters on both sides, its refusal to reduce either side to stereotypes. Stalag 17 doesn’t match this feat; but then La Grande Illusion had the perspective of distance on WWI, while Stalag 17 was not only made less than a decade after the end of WWII, but was adapted from an earlier Broadway play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski (a couple of the actors in the film reprise their roles from the stage play). The film’s wild and woolly gallows humor may not be really representative of life in a POW camp, but it accurately reflects and preserves the blend of anxiety and defiance that sustained the American public through the war years.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.