Synopsis: During World War II, a group of G.I.’s are thrown together in the notorious German prison camp Stalag 17. For the most part, they spend their time scheming ways to help each other escape. But when two prisoners are killed in an escape attempt, it becomes obvious that there is a spy among them. William Holden was awarded an Oscar for his performance as a cynical, sharp-tongued soldier who spends his time scheming up rackets and trading with the Germans for special privileges.
Stalag 17 7.5
‘Stalag 17’ is derived from a play, which, itself, was based on true events – playwrights Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski actually were prisoners of Stalag 17B in Austria. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, one of which was won by William Holden for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
While I’m indifferent with respect to Holden, who has failed to impress me in other films despite being a relatively good actor, I was quite impressed with how much screen presence he has here. His character tends to keep to the sidelines, but, somehow, Holden (with the help of director Billy Wilder, of course ) manages to make him the pivot of every scene he’s in. And it’s not that he displays a broad emotional range or makes especially notable speeches – he just fills up the screen even when he’s in the background.
Is it an Oscar-worthy performance? That’s subjective. But it is a notable one, for sure.
In ‘Stalag 17’, Holden plays a cynical, tough-as-nails survivor who’s looking out for number one – especially given that he’s known for a long time that there is a mole in their barracks and, not knowing who that person is, doesn’t trust anyone except his right-hand man, “Cookie” (the narrator of our motion picture).
It is said that Holden didn’t want the part but was forced to take it by the studio. It’s unfortunate to be forced to do anything, but I suspect that doing it against his will may actually have inspired his performance in a positive way. The character has to be disgruntled, after all.
The film revolves around the daily existence of the prisoners of Stalag 17, from the more amusing moments to the dispiriting ones. It all takes place around Christmas time, and most of the sequences are vignettes that could very well be taken out of context; many scenes appeared disconnected, like pieces that were thrown together without rhyme or reason.
Similarly, the jokes appeared forced, jammed into the mix; they weren’t especially funny or effective and didn’t feel like they fit especially well. I don’t know if the humour was added in during the adaptation from stage to screen, but it really didn’t work me; it was often too corny for me.
The rest of this adaptation works beautifully, however: from the onset we are told by “Cookie” that there is a snitch, a spy, in their midst. This sets the tone; even though there is plenty of light-hearted moments and many shenanigans, this fact looms large either in the foreground or in the back. No matter what was happening, or as light as it got, it was impossible to not wonder who the squealer was and if he was taking down notes and reporting what we were seeing to his superiors.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
One thing that I’m glad the filmmakers didn’t do, however, is succumb to the Hollywood penchant for adding an action sequence at the end of the picture, to manufacture “thrills” in lieu of actually building up suspense in a more natural way. While I have neither seen the stage play, I suspect that this screenplay is faithful to the ending, as it could easily have been reproduced on stage (a chase would probably look ridiculous in the theatre ).
Billy Wilder wasn’t the only director to base some of his films on plays, but he did quite a few (Avanti!, The Front Page, Sabrina, The Seven Year Itch, Witness for the Prosecution, …etc.). I can see the appeal: the characters are usually fleshed out very well, the dialogue is sharp, and the stories are well-crafted. ‘Stalag 17’ is a fine example of this.
While I had a few issues with this film, aside rom the fact that it’s a war film (it’s certainly not my favourite genre!), I can easily see why it was a draw. Sure, it could have been done a bit better (particularly the scenes not taking place in Barracks 17!), but it’s nonetheless an excellent two hours of entertainment.