Hilarious, heart-tugging! You'll laugh... you'll cry... you'll cheer William Holden in his great Academy Award role!
This incisive black comic drama by the great Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity - 1944, Sunset Boulevard - 1950, Some Like It Hot - 1959, The Apartment - 1960) is set in Stalag 17, a German prison-of-war camp in the winter of 1943, two years before the end of World War II.
The action opens in one of the prison huts, Barracks Four, little more than two lines of rough bunkbeds. A group of US airmen, all of equal military rank (sergeant), are helping two of their number, Manfredi and Johnson, to attempt an escape, using a tunnel that the men have helped construct under the perimeter fence. Almost as soon as the two escapees have left the hut, one prisoner, Sefton (William Holden), countering the general mood of optimism amongst the prisoners, argues that the escape attempt is unlikely to succeed and challenges the men to back their opinions by betting against him. Outraged (enraged?), most of the prisoners go ahead and place bets in support of the escapees but soon shots are heard and Sefton collects his not inconsiderable winnings.
An idea begins to seed itself through the minds of the prisoners, spreading like a modern viral meme. The Germans knew the exact time and place of the escape so they must somehow have learned details of the actual escape plan. Ruling out other options (uniformed German warders overhearing, mechanical listening devices) would leave only one logical explanation: a spy amongst their ranks, inside this very barrack, a hidden informer pretending to be one of them, feeding the Germans their most precious secrets. As the least popular person in the barrack, and as the person who profited most from the two escapees' deaths, the loaded barrel of guilt begins to turn towards J.J. Sefton.
At the centre of the film, the question of whether or not there is a hidden spy within the barrack, and if that spy is Sefton, creates an inherent tension driving the plot forward, and in its examination of what people are prepared to do to each other when the stakes are high, cleverly licences the film to explore to some very dark places. And in this case, with people's lives very much in the balance (and with a tip of the hat to Filmspotting's Adam Kempenaar, who loves a high stake), the stakes couldn't be much higher. What's more, according to Wikipedia, because of extensive re-writing of the script by Wilder and Blum, and the fact that, contrary to normal practice, the film was shot in chronological order, behind the scenes, even the cast members themselves "did not know the identity of the informant until the last three days of shooting", possibly adding to the tension on screen.
The film is by no means unremitting doom and gloom. Along the way, there are lighter moments. Among the supporting characters, the ongoing comic double act of the two barrack clowns, "Animal" Kasava (Robert Strauss) and Harry "Sugar Lips" Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck), who played the same roles in the stage play on which the film is based, are brilliantly written and impeccably played. Their repartee includes a ritualised, codified rhythmic use of language, developing localised echoic catch phrases, both English and German ("Raus! Raus! Raus!" and "At ease! At ease!", that strongly reminds me of the kind of thing my son, Matthew, and his friends amuse themselves with, riffing endlessly on phrases like "It's nacho cheese, I say it's nacho cheese. It's my cheese, my nacho cheese, bro, not yours, nacho cheese, no way, not your cheese. It's mine, not yours, nacho cheese." Clearly, Kasava and Shapiro's clowning around is not meaningless fun, but on the contrary, the only way they know of coping with the desperate situation they are in.
The cameraderie of Kasava and Shapiro even extends to the German warder, Sergeant Johann Sebastian Schulz (beautifully played by Sig Ruman), with whom at times they are very familiar, not to say dangerously cheeky. How meaningful, how deep, is this prisoner/warder cameraderie? Is Schulz an example of "the good German" of popular legend, subjugated, like the American prisoners, by Nazi cultists in high positions?
Another trope of prison tales, the question of sex (lack of) and enforced periods of same sex internment, is touched on cleverly and subtly. The Hollywood star, Betty Grable, she of the legendary legs, appears as an icon of female desirability. Along the way (without giving away specific plot spoilers), we see men dancing with men, and a distressingly graphic externalisation of desire, probably inspired by a key scene in Charlie Chaplin's The Goldrush (1925).
Turning away from a literal examination of the story to a kind of subtextual interpretation provides an interesting perspective on the United States of America, with the prison-of-war camp standing microscopically for the nation. If each barrack is like a state in the Union, an analogue of federal government support can be seen in the person of Marko the Mailman (William Pierson) who comes round to share bulletins, as well as in the egalitarian practice of time-sharing with the camp's only radio, the only source of outside news and music. There is even a system of sanctions against groups that transgress, by withholding or truncating time with the radio. Provision of a safety net of care for the severely disadvantaged can be seen in the way the character of Joey (Robinson Stone), the catastrophically shell-shocked unfortunate, is looked after by the men in various ways without thought of recompense or personal advantage.
I love the way that, through the conflict between Sefton and the other prisoners, Wilder manages to juxtapose the two key survival strategies available to the imprisoned US sergeants in Barrack Four, and metaphorically, to participants in the socio-political union of the USA itself. Sefton's strategy, essentially individualistic in nature, aims to maximise personal comforts wherever possible, using wealth (in the absence of money, taking the form mainly of cigarettes, the most common currency of barter in the camp) acquired from fellow prisoners via bets and other revenue-accruing activities. This wealth can then be used to gain special privileges from the German overseers, such as turning a blind eye to black market trading, and to gain material advantages such as bottles of alcohol, cigars and good quality food. Of course, acquiring wealth and privilege at the other prisoners' expense does not necessarily bring popularity. Sefton epitomises the selfish face of capitalism, profiteering, cynically exploiting the misfortunes of others for his own benefit. While Sefton is disliked and mistrusted, at the same time, his character provides much of the entertainment and comforts for the rest: speed races with gambling, a liquor bar, a girlie peep show. Could it be that Sefton stands for the entertainment industry, Hollywood, Wilder himself?
As Wilder re-worked the adultery theme of The Seven Year Itch (1955) to great effect in The Apartment (1960), so Stalag 17 (1953) is a second take on the theme of the flip side of the American ideal of rugged individualism: merciless self-interest, initiated in Ace in the Hole (1951), with Sefton a brother in spirit to Kirk Douglas's cynical newspaper hound, ruthlessly exploiting others to advance his own career.
The contrasting strategy, employed by almost all the other men in the barrack, is a kind of cooperative altruism, in its way, a collective socialism, mainly exemplified in their united efforts to support escape attempts and more generally in mutual protection from punishment by their captors, and in care for less abled people in their group. Interestingly, the cooperative approach taken by the majority, which I would imagine most if not all of us will perceive as the best and most moral approach, essentially aligns itself with socialist principles, and exposes the despicable hidden face of unbridled capitalism. This makes Wilder a highly subversive social commentator, causing American cinema-goers in the 1950s to side emotionally with a socio-political stance (socialism) that many would have (misguidedly, I would suggest) hated and feared, and in the main, continue to hate and fear. Respect for this achievement, Mr Wilder. You rock! (I'll bet Michael Moore loves this film, too.)
To conclude, love it or hate it, this is very much a Billy Wilder film: he co-wrote it, directed and produced. As for William Holden, although in other films I have often not really appreciated him, in this film he is really very good, so good that he got a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar.
- Director: Billy Wilder
- Writers: Screenplay by Edwin Blum and Billy Wilder, Original theatrical play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski
- Starring: William Holden, Don Taylor, Otto Preminger, Robert Strauss, Peter Graves, Neville Brand, Harvey Lembeck
- Rating: Exceptional
- When seen: 21 Jul 2012
- Where seen: Home
- More information: IMDB | RottenTomatoes | Wikipedia
Written in WriteRoom, formatted using HyperEdit, posted from my MacBook Pro