Monday 2 October 2023

Movie Review: Stalag 17 (1953)

Genre: World War Two Prison Comedy Drama
Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: William Holden, Peter Graves 
Running Time: 120 minutes

Synopsis: At the Stalag 17 German camp for captured Americans, two prisoners from Barracks 4 attempt an escape but are summarily gunned down. Barracks chief "Hoffy" (Richard Erdman) and his security chief Price (Peter Graves) are convinced one of the prisoners is an informer. Suspicions rest on the enterprising J.J. Sefton (William Holden), who openly trades with the German guards and just wants to quietly sit out the war. When newly captured high-value prisoner Lieutenant Dunbar (Don Taylor) joins Barracks 4, confirming the informer's identity becomes critical.

What Works Well: The adaptation of the Broadway play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, based on their actual experiences, captures life in a muddy war-time prison as a humour-enabled mixture of frustration, resistance, and resignation. Emotion and pain seep through tough exteriors, and director and co-writer Billy Wilder is unafraid to contrast broad laughs with matters of life and death. Details of prison life, including improvised mice races, listening to war news on a smuggled radio, and lusting after Russian women prisoners in the camp next door, highlight the battle against boredom. In a strong final act, William Holden's sardonic performance emerges from the background to sharpen focus on the more serious storylines.

What Does Not Work As Well: The non-dramatic portions are dominated by slapstick-level attempts at humour courtesy of prisoners Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) and "Animal" (Robert Strauss), and their antics are more cringeworthy than funny. Overseen by jovial guards, the well-fed and well-combed prisoners rarely appear to be suffering from any hardships beyond cramped quarters.

Conclusion: Behind the fence, different and quieter conflicts still rage.

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