I'd been meaning to see Stalag 17 for years. In my teens I'd inherited a behemoth laser disc player and a pile of discs that outlined my grandmother and grandfather's cinematic tastes. His pile was mostly war films; he'd been in Europe during the second World War, and had escape two camps himself, while his father spent the war in an Oflag. Due to my family's history, Stalag 17 was always my first choice disc to play. But the player was wonky and wouldn't play the sound properly, and I'd never gotten around to picking up a different copy of the film, until a fellow Twitter follower re-inspired my push to see it.
At first, I was nervous. Billy Wilder's comedy had been built up for years, references to it popping up everywhere -- even on Gilmore Girls. Could it live up to my ever-increasing expectations? Either way, the time had come. I slipped the disc in, pressed play, and at first, it looked like my worst fears were realized. While I was appreciating it, I didn't love it. But then the two-hour film started growing on me and I realized that the magic of Stalag 17 was the journey.
Of course, there is no actual journey in the film, save for the times a character happens to sneak a few yards away from camp, but there is a journey for the viewer. Though the film begins with a grand and failed escape plan, its big strength is how the story slowly grows, patiently teaching us about each player, never content to just give the twists away. Instead, Wilder let it all build piece by piece. The technique teases our modern impatience, but it's not done to draw out the tale and suspense, but rather to unfold the story in a way that suits its characters.
No matter what the men in Barracks 4 do, their German captors are always one step ahead of them, stopping escapees and seeming to know every little secret, even the little dalliances and perks hidden away from prying Nazi eyes. Naturally, the men quickly realize that there must be a traitor in their midst, which turns all their attention to Sergeant J.J. Sefton (William Holden), the self-concerned POW who does everything he can to make his life in the stalag easier -- betting, bartering, and amassing a large collection of fortune and power. He does, in fact, have so much to barter with that he can bribe the guards, which makes his fellow prisoners convinced that he must be a spy. Rather than trying to befriend and explain himself, he sits quietly watching, determined to find out who the real spy is and knowing full well that being hot-headed or reactionary will get him nowhere and ultimately keep the identity of the true spy a secret.
What's most impressive about the film is how it balances the seriousness and the humor. From the beginning to the end, the film is rife with laughs, but it always remembers that the story is serious, which makes the laughs not just a superficial treatment for entertainment's sake, but rather the vehicle for acceptance. By that I mean two things -- the humor between the prisoners helps keep their heads on straight under rough circumstances, and the humor allowed the audience outside the film to accept the story without it picking at still-healing wounds (it came only eight years after the end of the war).
Surprisingly enough, those same laughs help with the film's humanity and realism. In a far more dramatic feature, especially being filmed so soon after the war, the Nazis would have been completely demonized, but the fact of the matter is that there were many levels and mindsets, and through sarcastic banter, Wilder was able to show shades of gray, creating sinister elements and other players that seem more caught in the middle. Likewise, in the barracks the men embody any number of levels. Not all of them are heroic, smart, or even strong. One, in fact, is damaged to the point that he cannot speak, his moments of comedy being the darkest and closest to the real pain and suffering of combat experience.
Stalag 17 is both realistic and farcical. I imagine many men sat down to watch this and were eased by an account that was very familiar, but also much easier to swallow and experience. Growing up I heard many stories about those camps up on stilts, and how escape happened through the floors. How men like Dunbar waited under extreme duress and excruciating circumstances to try and gain their freedom, waiting hours or days for the moment when they could escape.
It's a rare film that can be so many things at once, balancing truth and comedy in a way that can be relevant over fifty years later. It's epic and grand exactly because it didn't try to be either. It's heroic because it isn't about heroism that defies the odds.
- The film's big trivia: It was once to star Charlton Heston. In fact, Holden had seen the original piece of theater and walked out. Could it have had the same impact with Heston?
- This is the film that won Holden his Oscar. Was it for the right film, or should it have been Sunset Blvd. or Network?
- Most recent films take dramatic or war-centric stories and focus on the heart, drama, and heroism. Is there a place in today's cinema for a story that's equally as comedic as it is dramatic?
Next Week's Film: Chasing Amy | Add it to your Netflix queue
Last Week's Film: Titus