Stalag 17 Billy Wilder

Although Stalag 17 was one of Billy Wilder’s most successful films (box-office-wise) it has lost prominence over the years. This is not an example of a once respected film being given a second chance with a DVD release though; Stalag 17 is not often quoted in the same breath as The Apartment, Some Like It Hot or Sunset Boulevard simply because it is not as good. The confined space of a POW barracks allows for tension among the men but the claustrophobic atmosphere is crowded with overacting and too heavy dialogue. It feels less like a Billy Wilder film than someone trying to imitate the great writer/director’s style. During a breakout attempt, two POWs are killed by the guards. The men of Stalag 17 realise that there must be a spy among them. Sefton (William Holden) is the most likely candidate; he runs the camp black market of cigarettes and liquor, and seems to have a good relationship with the Nazis. Taken from a Broadway play (the script was adapted by Wilder and Edwin Blum), the film retains the broad comedy and physical gestures of acting to the back of the room. The unfortunate result is that subtle performances from Holden (who won an Oscar for this role) and Peter Graves are up against the comic relief of double takes and mugging for the camera by the band of character actors filling out the cast. Although I recognise this as a ‘”comedic style,” it is better suited for musical comedies or slapstick than a film selling itself as a POW drama. One of the playwrights (Donald Bevan) and two secondary cast members (Richard Erdman and Gil Stratton) provide commentary. They spend more time reminiscing about the war than telling stories from the movie set. Other than a few details — that Otto Preminger was mean and Holden was polite (and would drink glasses of straight vodka on set) — they provide very little insight. The documentary "The Real Heroes of Stalag 17B” is interesting in a History Channel kind of way –— it’s informative, with lots of archival footage and veterans and military experts fondly recalling the horror overseas. Wilder was a great social and cultural critic but he rarely addressed these issues in a straightforward way. His films are populated by morally ambiguous characters who only sometimes, and usually against their better judgment, develop a conscience. Stalag 17 is about the infighting between the men in the barracks, not the struggle against the Nazis. It is essentially a "war at home” story, albeit home is a POW camp. Considering that Wilder lost most of his family in Nazi concentration camps (I admit to tearing up every time I hear Wilder’s question for Holocaust deniers: "If there was no Holocaust then tell me, where is my mother?”), I was hoping for something more substantial than the easily tricked German guard Schultz. Stalag 17 is an average Billy Wilder and POW film (I’m a big fan of both, by the way). It’s a shame that Holden’s great performance can be easily lost in this slough. (Paramount)