By: Erik Swift
Out now on a special collector’s edition DVD from Paramount Pictures, Billy Wilder’s black comedy “Stalag 17” is based on a hit play written by former prisoners of war Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski. With an air of authenticity few POW films emit, it details the smallest of daily prison camp activities, and the oppression of Nazi imprisonment hovers above soldiers who dream of a successful escape from a place that has managed to keep everyone inside. The 1953 film is set in 1944’s final weeks, during the heart of the Allied invasion and the Battle Of The Bulge. Hundreds at Stalag 17 crave information, but a German spy is inside one of the barracks, among them. Two men trying to escape are killed, and a short-wave radio is easily discovered. No one wants to believe an American is feeding information to the enemy, but when a recent arrival is arrested after mentioning how he was able to destroy a supply train, suspicion drifts to the wheeling-and-dealing Sgt. J.J. Sefton (William Holden). In good with the guards and procuring the best swag around the camp, is he a traitor?
Materialism is a theme that runs through many of Wilder’s movies (the multiple payoffs in “Double Indemnity,” the trappings of success in “Sunset Boulevard”) and “Stalag 17” is no different. In a script from Wilder and Edwin Blum, Sefton is so adept at skimming objects of value from other prisoners that his bartering skills are the source of their jealousy. Whether the guards hook him up with fresh eggs or a visit with female Russian prisoners, the soldiers are certain Sefton has to be the informant based on the rewards for his enterprising work. The root of this methodology is really their disturbance that they aren’t receiving preferential treatment, which spurs them into action against him. The loner Sefton’s “Forget it” in the final scenes, a “F**k you” to the barracks and a dismissal of any sympathy or goodwill, is very similar to Holden’s acceptance speech for the character, the shortest in Oscar history. Saying simply “Thank you,” he reportedly hurled his statuette backstage; sounds like he was still pissed at the Academy for choosing Jose Ferrer (“Cyrano de Bergerac”) as Best Actor over his performance in “Sunset Boulevard” three years earlier. Not a typical Hollywood scenester, Holden’s two words on that March 1954 evening echo the core of Sefton, a role intended for both Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas.
The other actors are on point, and that’s expected from Wilder. Casting director Otto Preminger as Col. Von Scherbach was a brilliant move. Like Wilder, he was a Jew who fled the Nazis in the 1930s, and his onscreen moments use the most basic stereotypes – with unsoiled boots and hands perched on hips, the Commandant is a leering showcase for Preminger, whose profile rose on mid-1960s television as Mr. Freeze in “Batman.” Robert Strauss scored a Best Supporting Actor nomination as the scene-stealing Animal, and with Harvey Lembeck’s Shapiro (both reprising stage roles), Peter Graves (“Mission: Impossible,” “Airplane!”) as Price and sports reporter Gil Stratton as Sefton’s sidekick Cook, these guys make an above-average batch of soldiers.
The extras on the DVD are standard (commentary, photo gallery) but the 45 minutes of Sparkhill documentaries are worth checking out. For film fans, Marlene Dietrich’s visit to the set provides some funny stories from Stratton and Bevan in “Stalag 17: From Reality To Screen,” but history buffs will love “The Real Heroes Of Stalag XVIIB.” Bevan joins other survivors of the POW camp to recount the time they spent behind enemy lines, bringing some to tears while all recount harrowing escapes after being liberated in April 1945. On DVD, this edition powers past previous versions that skimped on extras. Everyone should see the top-notch “Stalag 17” once.