Stalag 17

Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Billy Wilder and Edwin Blum (based on the play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski)
Stars: William Holden (Sgt. J.J. Sefton), Don Taylor (Lt. James Dunbar), Otto Preminger (Oberst von Scherbach), Robert Strauss (Sgt. Stanislaus “Animal” Kuzawa), Harvey Lembeck (Sgt. Harry Shapiro), Richard Erdman (Sgt. “Hoffy” Hoffman), Peter Graves (Sgt. Frank Price), Neville Brand (Duke), Sig Ruman (Sgt. Johann Sebastian Schulz), Michael Moore (Sgt. Manfredi), Peter Baldwin (Sgt. Johnson), Robinson Stone (Joey), Robert Shawley (Sgt. “Blondie” Peterson), William Pierson (Marko the Mailman), Gil Stratton Jr. (Sgt. Clarence Harvey “Cookie” Cook)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1953
Country: U.S.
Stalag 17 Blu-ray
Stalag 17

Billy Wilder was never one to be pigeonholed or pinned down. A consummate chameleon who shifted genre with virtually every film he made (and sometimes within the films themselves), Wilder created a body of work that is as diverse as it is entertaining and engaging, chock full of unexpected hits and surprising curveballs that stand as testament to an artist who never felt comfortable unless he was challenging both himself and his audience. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Wilder’s lone war film, Stalag 17, would arrive sandwiched between his acerbic satires Hollywood Blvd. (1950) and Ace in the Hole (1951) and his romantic comedies Sabrina (1954) and The Seven-Year Itch (1955).

Of course, Stalag 17 is hardly a conventional war film. Predating Robert Altman’s parodic M*A*S*H (1970) and clearly influenced by Jean Renoir’s humanist Grand Illusion (1938), it is both a mordant comedy and a stark drama, a character study and an invigorating thriller. It hits plenty of by-now-familiar genre points, especially its evocation of the melting-pot assemblage of American types thrown together by the exigencies of war, but it also daringly subverts more than a few expectations and plays up moments of bawdy humor in ways the run headlong into its stark desire for dirty, gritty realism (the film was based on a hit Broadway play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, both of whom spent time in the real-life Stalag 17B during World War II).

Set in a German prisoner of war camp in Austria in 1944, Stalag 17 is a kind of whodunit mystery, where the “it” is the person (or persons) ratting to the Germans on the activities of the American soldiers being held prisoner, especially those in Barracks 4, who are a motley assortment or tough-guy caricatures and wise-cracking clowns. Whereas most films of this sort culminate in a complex escape attempt, that is how Stalag 17 begins, albeit with a failed attempt that results in two American prisoners being machine-gunned by the Nazis as soon as they come out of their tunnel on the other side of the barbed wire fence.

There is a clearly a rat in the house who is informing on their activities, and there are plenty of men to choose from: the randy, Betty Grable-obsessed Sgt. Stanislaus “Animal” Kuzawa (Robert Strauss, Oscar nominated for his broad mugging); his best friend, the sarcastic Sgt. Harry Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck); the barrack’s appointed chief Sgt. “Hoffy” Hoffman (Richard Erdman); and the barrack’s humorless security officer Sgt. Frank Price (Peter Graves), to name a few. The fact that the film is narrated by Sgt. Clarence Harvey “Cookie” Cook (Gil Stratton Jr.) seems to get him off the hook, but there are no guarantees. The most obvious culprit is Sgt. J.J. Sefton (William Holden), a cynical con artist who has mastered the art of prison camp trade and appears to be a bit too chummy with the German guards (at least chummy enough that he is able to buy his way over to the female Russian prisoner of war camp next door, one of the film’s many barely repressed sexual references). Sefton is the kind of guy you love to hate, and Holden (in an Oscar-winning performance) plays his brazen lack of care to the hilt. It is a minor miracle that we don’t find him utterly despicable. (Andrew Sarris rightly pointed out in his initial dismissal of Wilder in The American Cinema that he was “too cynical to believe even his own cynicism,” which he underscored by pointing out how Holden’s character is softened at the last minute with a boyish smile and a friendly wave after he leaves all his comrades behind.)

However, this is precisely the terrain in which Wilder loved to operate, giving us contradictory characters mired in a cleverly balanced generic mishmash that keeps us constantly on our toes (Sarris, to his credit, later recanted most of his dismissal of Wilder). One minute Animal and Shapiro are cooking up an absurd plan to get a peek at the Russian women being deloused in the shower, and the next minute the men are at each other’s throats trying to figure out who the rat is. An all-male barracks dance replete with music and cross-gender performance supplies the film with its most daring slight to the Production Code’s various strictures and also its most significant allusion to Renoir’s earlier masterpiece, although the great director Otto Preminger’s snide camp commandant Oberst von Scherbach is clearly meant to evoke the great director Erich von Stroheim’s parallel character (although I don’t recall von Stroheim having his boots put on him by an underling just to make a phone call to Berlin).

There is real danger in Stalag 17, which Wilder establishes with the brutal failure of the opening escape attempt, and he draws out a great deal of suspense when the men work together to hide and then plan the escape for a downed pilot (Don Taylor) who the Germans (rightly) suspect was a saboteur. Following the Broadway play on which it was based, the film also takes the daring gamble of answering the central mystery with more than a third of the story left to go, which dramatically shifts the terrain. It all works (with the possible exception of Cookie’s expository voice-over), proving once again that there was no material Wilder couldn’t make his own.

Stalag 17 70th Anniversary Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary by filmmaker/historian Steve Mitchell and film historian Steven Jay Rubin
  • Audio commentary by film historian Joseph McBride
  • Audio commentary by actors Richard Erdman and Gil Stratton with co-playwright Donald Bevan
  • Stalag 17: From Reality to Screen” featurette
  • “The Real Heroes of Stalag XVII B” featurette
  • Distributorino Lorber
    Release DateOctober 24, 2023

    Kino Lorber’s 70th Anniversary Blu-ray of Stalag 17 features a brand-new master scanned in 4K from the original 35mm camera negative. They have also released a 4K UHD edition, but I was sent a Blu-ray for review, so my comments reflect the 2K version. I can only imagine how good the 4K looks, because the Blu-ray is fantastic, with a richly textured image boasting good contrast, shadow detail, depth, and overall clarity. The original celluloid sheen is clearly present, and whatever digital restoration was done has left it largely lacking in any signs of age or wear. The original monaural soundtrack is presented in a clean, robust DTS-HD Master Audio track that sounds as good as could be expected. Most of the supplements are old hat from previous releases, but Kino has seen fit to add two new audio commentaries, one by filmmaker and historian Steve Mitchell and film scholar Steven Jay Rubin (author of Combat Films: American Realism) and one by film historian Joseph McBride (author of the recently published Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge). Both commentaries offer great insight into the film, its production, and its various legacies and are worth a listen for those who want to take a deep dive into film history. The third audio commentary dates back to the 2006 Paramount Special Collector’s Edition release, and it is also worth a listen (if you haven’t already), as it features three people who worked on the film: actors Richard Erdman and Gil Stratton and co-playwright Donald Bevan. Finally, the disc includes two featurettes from the 2006 disc: the retrospective “Stalag 17: From Reality to Screen” (22 min.), which includes interviews with William Holden biographer Bob Thomas, Billy Wilder biographer Ed Sikov, actor Richard Erdman, playwright Donald Bevan, and filmmaker Nicholas Meyer, and “The Real Heroes of Stalag XVIIB” (25 min.), which features interviews with Bevan and fellow veterans Edward McKenzie and Ned Handy about their experiences being held at the real-life prison camp.

    Copyright © 2024 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Kino Lorber / Paramount Pictures

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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