Stalag 17 is a funny war film. Not strange, but funny. It’s a comedy-drama set in a German POW camp during the Second World War. Its tone is quite similar to M*A*S*H – the television series, not the actually-dark-humoured film. There’s even a narrator who sounds quite like Hawkeye. Of course, Stalag 17 came much earlier – one of the first in a rich decade for POW dramas. Don’t like war films? I watched this one with my parents and they both loved it. My mother usually avoids anything war-themed like the plague while my dad would give it a look.
Me? Don’t mind the odd war film. The Thin Red Line was and is breathtaking, A Bridge Too Far was absorbing, Das Boot captivating and oppressive, Letters from Iwo Jima touching, Schindler’s List remarkable, Saving Private Ryan and Kelly’s Heroes – mindless fun, Downfall… has Hitler in it, The Hurt Locker… Corn Flakes. Haven’t seen too many of the POW subgenre. The Great Escape is terribly overrated and not particularly worthwhile (with an annoying whistling theme that I can’t disassociate from the English national football team). The Bridge on the River Kwai is very good, excellent even, while still being somewhat overrated and notional to a nonsensical degree (build bridge because of stiff upper lip?!?). Alec Guinness is superb, of course.
Stalag 17 isn’t based on a true story but on a play written by two men who were themselves prisoners of war in Luft Stalag 17B. The tale focuses on a group of sergeants and the goings-on in their barracks. Whether they’re plotting escape, causing trouble for their jailers or just trying to smuggle in some comforts, it becomes apparent that one of their number is tipping off the Germans. One of them doesn’t want to escape. He’s a self-confessed mercenary, cynical and only interested in making life more comfortable for himself while he waits for the war to come to an end. He runs several rackets and trades openly with the Nazis. He’s Sgt. J.J. Sefton, perfectly played by William Holden. Oddly for a main character, he does a lot of skulking about in the background, watching the others and listening… but for what purpose and what will he do with the information?
Stalag 17 is superb. It’s a laugh almost all the way through with the guys horsing around à la M*A*S*H most of the time. In spite of Sefton’s cynicism and probable correctness about the odds of surviving an escape attempt versus waiting, Stalag sits more in the realm of the light-hearted adventure than the grim war film. It’s not trying to be realistic, just entertaining and funny. It’s in the same gene pool as The Great Escape except for it’s excellent and Escape is maybe bearable if you block your ears and take something for nausea. Or I need to watch it again. I’d much rather watch Stalag a second time, or watch Holden in something else, like Sunset Boulevard. That’s a film I’d rate as just about the best I’ve ever seen and another from Billy Wilder. Going back to it after so many years might tell me more about me than the film, especially since I was a young adult when I saw it. Perhaps Stalag 17 could best be described as the M*A*S*H film we deserved rather than the one we got – like the TV series rather than the okay-but-more-than-a-little-ho-hum film. Yes, it was black comedy but it wasn’t particularly remarkable unless you want to over-emphasise the importance of its political message. It won the Palme d’Or. Enough Said.