Time to continue the journey down the rabbit hole, exploring of some of my late mother’s favorite films. Her tastes leaned more towards the classic rather than the modern, and I’m completely fine with that. Far too often we jump into the new and flashy thing with both feet and then dispose of it three minutes later because the supposed next best thing comes along. We just need to take a breather, pause, and survey of what has come before. Of course, I can think of no better place to take stock of where we’re at than being at a prison camp!
Prison movies have long been a Hollywood staple. Here’s a random list that contains just a fraction of the films that spent some time inside the hoosegow: Escape From Alcatraz, Birdman Of Alcatraz, Each Dawn I Die, The Green Mile, I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, Cool Hand Luke, Papillon, Penitentiary, The Longest Yard, and The Shawshank Redemption. The Blues Brothers has Belushi at Joliet prison at the start. Even the redoubtable Ernest went to jail once.
Back when I was a student at a not-that-great parochial college, these movies really clicked with me. (Well, except for the Ernest one.) In retrospect, I can understand why I gravitated towards this genre at the time: I couldn’t really leave, the meals were substandard, and there were diabolical hazing rituals for the new fish…I mean, freshmen. So, I completely understood Andy’s need for a rock hammer and a big damn poster.
A subcategory of the prison movie is the Prisoner of War film. There’s fare like King Rat, Von Ryan’s Express, and The Bridge on The River Kwai. And I would be beyond remiss if I didn’t mention The Great Escape. The Great Escape has stood the test of time, with big stars like Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and Richard Attenborough all tunneling like mad, attempting to motorcycle their way to Swiss freedom with their forged passes, all while under the tight direction of John Sturges, as Elmer Bernstein’s rousing score cheers them on in the background. Despite the historical liberties it paints at times with a very wide brush, The Great Escape transcends the POW genre, becoming a classic film in its own right. But obviously, I’m not going to talk about that movie.
Don’t get me wrong, if it wasn’t for my mother, I would talk about The Great Escape with unrestrained glee, but it just wasn’t a film she adored. Mind you, not that she hated or loathed it or anything like that, it just was never in her wheelhouse. To be honest, she never really was a big fan of the prison or POW movie in general as far as I can remember. But tastes can be many and varied and who am I to judge them? After all, just because you love one song doesn’t mean you love the whole album. You might adore one musical but think others are rubbish. And my mother didn’t love all POW films or World War II films or prison films, she loved just one and it was called Stalag 17.
Let me begin by saying that you don’t have to watch the previous 16 Stalag films to get caught up to speed. (Imagine my surprise when after literally minutes of research on my part, it turns out that there aren’t 16 other Stalag films! So, please allow me to begin again.) Stalag 17 is the name of a Nazi-run POW camp during World War II. Various escape attempts by the American POWs are continually confounded by the Nazis. The film starts with one of these attempts failing with the escapees getting shot dead in the process. The POWs begin to suspect that there is traitor in their midst, because somehow the Germans are getting inside information. The question is: if there is an informant, who is he? And don’t worry, even though I know that the film is now 70 years old, I’m not going to spoil it because the reveal is actually pretty good. No, really.
Coming out a good decade before The Great Escape, Stalag 17 is a solid POW film throughout. Given the film’s atmosphere, for my money, it feels a touch more realistic than Escape. The Great Escape is a brighter film; there’s no rain, no grey clouds, and it is in glorious color throughout. In contrast, Stalag 17 is in down-and-dirty black and white, manages to find more comic moments, all the while conveying the poor living conditions, the images of bodies shot down in the mud, the evident PTS in at least one of the POWs. There’s a tunnel and signals and contraband and scheming.
And even without any motorcycle chases or James Coburn doing an awful Australian accent, Stalag 17 succeeds. (Look, it had to be said. I adore Coburn, but that accent is miles off. It wasn’t even necessary for his character. Heck, just make him another American or a Canadian or have him take accent lessons from Bronson. Do anything but have him supposedly come from the land Down Under. Crickey, I just want to chunder my shrimp on the barbie, mate.)
Based on a stage play, the film adaptation of Stalag 17 was helmed by Billy Wilder. Wilder has an accomplished resumé, filled with plenty of classic movies. Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment, Double Indemnity, Some Like It Hot, and The Lost Weekend to name a few. There is no denying his superb craft or his writing abilities. Wilder excelled in a variety of genres, bringing Academy Award attention to his well-crafted projects. Now dear reader, with that preamble concluded, I must admit something to you: Wilder’s catalog doesn’t really thrill me. Again, I know I should like his work because of the overwhelming acclaim, but aside from the legendary noir Double Indemnity, the gothic classic Sunset Boulevard, and Stalag 17, but I just don’t enjoy his films when compared to the works of his contemporaries like John Ford, Howard Hawks, or Alfred Hitchcock.
(Hey, you Wilder fans, I fully recognize that this is a “me” problem. I think it all stems from Wilder’s movie The Apartment managing to get the Academy Award for Best Picture instead of Hitchcock’s Psycho, which wasn’t even nominated. While The Apartment is a good film, it certainly wasn’t the same as the successful cultural lynchpin Psycho, which is still being analyzed as Film 101 to this very day. And even though I realize that not only this is ultimately the Academy’s fault not Wilder’s, but also that my overall petty position is unreasonable to take, I’m still taking it, so there!)
Even though Stalag 17 was adapted from the stage, it does not suffer from Hollywood’s temptation to “open up” a play in order to show that it is a movie now. The main setting is in one of the barracks, dismal and grungy as it is. What you see of the outside is the eternally muddy and cold prison camp. Stalag 17 truly makes you feel that you’re stuck in an icy, wet, dirty environment the week before Christmas with a bunch of unwashed, unshaven G.I.s in ever-increasingly dirty and tattered uniforms trying to do what they can to keep each other sane. The mud gets so thick at one point that after watching the film you end up feeling like you need to take a shower. (Just don’t take it at the Bates Motel, am I right? All right, all right, I’ll shut up about Psycho.)
One huge factor that also helps sell Stalag 17 convincingly is the casting. This is a character actor’s smorgasbord with many opportunities to shine. When it could have been so easy to hire nondescript faces that just blend into the mass of POWs, time was taken to bring in some very good stage and background actors. In that regard, Robert Strauss and Harvey Lembeck were transported over from the play, portraying their same stage characters in the film version. Both are a joy as they cut into some of the drama in their mostly comic roles, yet stepping up to be serious as needed. (At this point, I would like to thank Robert Strauss for giving the younger me a wonderful appreciation for Betty Grable. Thank you, Animal. And thank you Ms. Grable for helping my puberty along.)
Some faces you might recognize amongst the group would be that of a young Peter Graves, miles before he ever led the Impossible Mission Force and even longer before he was in Airplane! talking about gladiator movies. Neville Brand is also memorable. Brand was a highly decorated WWII veteran before he took up acting, so it certainly didn’t hurt the authenticity he brought to the movie. Portraying Nazis in films was almost a full-time job for marvelous character actor Sig Rumann. (Rumann was already a familiar face to me, seeing as how I’m a great fan of the Marx Brothers. He was a terrific antagonist for the boys in three (!) of their pictures and some of Groucho’s best putdowns and quips were at the expense of Sig.)
It is very fitting that Otto Preminger portrays the Nazi camp commandant, given his history as an overbearing and demanding film director in real life. Billy Wilder was no stranger in casting very Teutonic directors in acting roles, having previously used Erich Von Stroheim in Sunset Boulevard, so his bringing in Preminger works rather well. Preminger himself directed a solid catalog of movies such as Anatomy of a Murder, Laura, The Man with the Golden Arm, and Advise and Consent. (Notably, he was one of the legendary trio of actors that portrayed Mr. Freeze on the 1966 Batman TV show. That reminds me of something else about Preminger: if the delightful Adam West thinks you’re a bully, then you’re a bully and I’ll leave it at that.)
The biggest name that I haven’t brought up yet is William Holden. Holden plays Sefton, a sharp, cynical prick that chances are, you just won’t like at first. Sefton’s trying to make the best of a bad situation and if that involves bribing the camp guards to curry favors or holding gambling events to try and clip the other POWs, he doesn’t mind. As the rest of the POWs are clear about doing their duty with escape plans, Holden is more than content to wait the war out in the camp, keeping on doing what he’s doing. His point of view isn’t necessarily wrong just unpopular, given the circumstances.
For such a great portrayal, Holden won the Academy Award for Best Actor for Stalag 17. Now there are some out there who have stated that Holden’s Stalag 17 Academy Award was a consolation prize for his not winning for Sunset Boulevard. Even if that is true and taking nothing away from his great performance in Sunset Boulevard, I hold that for his role in Stalag 17, Holden is still deserving of the accolades he received for the role. Holden was a marvelous actor and later carved out a niche of playing weathered, worn, jaded, and/or cynical characters. Look at later roles in Network and The Wild Bunch and you’ll see what I mean. Even amid The Towering Inferno, he manages to bring this attitude across.
By the way, in Stalag 17, Holden even has a bit of unintentional foreshadowing when he remarks that even if these guys do escape the stalag, they’ll just be probably sent out again in the Pacific. But then they might end up getting shot down and stuck in a Japanese prison camp, which would be far worse. This is rather funny considering that exactly happened to Holden five years later, while Alec Guinness was directing the building of a bridge over the River Kwai. Coincidence? Read the book.
When I was a kid, I would finish Stalag 17 and then rewind the tape to rewatch the last 30 minutes or so. And when I finished the movie on a lovely Blu-ray tonight, I did the exact same thing . It was instinct, a reaction embedded in me. While admittedly a satisfying ending, I finally understood why I did this. Holden is firing on all cylinders, earning the kudos his performance received. With the tension, the suspense, the cast coming to the fore; Stalag 17 has built to a great payoff. So, I just wanted to watch it again. Perhaps again after that.
It is for this reason along with the grittier background, some lovely comedy, and the suspenseful drama that I prefer this POW movie a smidge over The Great Escape. While I do love Escape, at times it is just too clean, too pat, too well-produced, too full of color. Stalag 17 manages to hold the viewer in glorious monochrome, it has no plethora of larger-than-life movie stars to speak of, and it has a more economical plot. (Also, it can be considered a Christmas movie, so keep that in mind for your next holiday watchlist!)
Stalag 17 is a story about being in a terrible place, coping as best as one can with what you’ve got. It has a good balance of drama, sprinkled with comedy, and some excellent performances. At the end of the day, these are probably the reasons that ultimately drew my mom to this story. Thanks to her, Stalag 17 is one film that I never want to escape from. In fact, I’ll always want to return there again and again. (Which is more than I can say for my parochial college!)