Stalag 17 opens with its narrator, Cookie (Gil Stratton), announcing, “I don’t know about you, but it always makes me sore when I see those war pictures, all about flying leathernecks and submarine patrols and frogmen and guerillas in the Philippines. What gets me is that there never was a movie about POWs — about prisoners of war.”
There’s at least one reason this story hasn’t been told much in movies: prison compounds lack the widescreen splendor of a battlefield. But Stalag 17 originated in a format that made use of such confines, a hit Broadway play. And the film was and is enormously popular, spawning a mini-genre of escape movies. That it was an inspiration for Hogan’s Heroes may be its strangest legacy. After a brief scene showing the thwarted escape and gunning down of two prisoners, the film’s first act is spent with the boys in their barracks. They lust after the Russian women inmates across the way (who look like a collection of Studio City starlets), take turns listening to an illegal radio, play volleyball, have sailboat races, play pranks on Sergeant Schultz (Sig Ruman), and groan about getting up in the morning. It’s like a summer in the Poconos where the campers sometimes get shot.
This is a Billy Wilder movie, so there’s a darker side to these shenanigans, but it’s also a post-war Hollywood blockbuster. The comedy is not nearly so cynical as M*A*S*H or Catch-22, but sentimental, a means to sanitize collective trauma. In the documentary “Stalag 17: From Reality to Screen,” included on the Special Collector’s Edition DVD, actor Richard Erdman says, “In its own weird way, it’s one of the more authentic movies about World War II… All [the audience] knew were the horror stories.” There is some truth to this: a second documentary, “The Real Heroes of Stalag XVIIB,” points out that the actual prisoners formed a lively community that included a theater, mechanics shop, and language courses. But countering uncomfortable accounts of atrocities with schmaltzy comedy hardly balances the scales of truth.
Most of the comedy comes from the id/ego comedy team of Animal (Robert Strauss) and Harry Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck). In “From Reality to Screen,” writer and producer Nicholas Meyer says, “The movie’s almost stolen by Robert Strauss.” The actor’s antics suggest those of an ultra-competitive vaudevillian rather than an ensemble performer. To accept the comedy, and with Wilder’s zippy dialogue, it definitely can be entertaining, it’s best not to view the movie as a “World War II film,” but as a movie that takes place in a fantasy construct that happens to resemble World War II.
The story behind the comedy concerns Sefton (William Holden), a crafty camp capitalist who trades with the Nazis and his bunkmates to accumulate luxuries like wine, cigars, and decent food. When it becomes apparent that somebody in Stalag 17 is ratting out their escape plans to Schultz and Colonel von Scherbach (Otto Preminger playing what would become a Nazi Kommandant archetype), the Stalag crew suspect the selfish loner Sefton and beat him half to death. While recovering, he tries to figure out the identity of the double agent, using this information to secure his escape. Before leaving, he sneers, “Just one more word. If I run into any of you bums on a street corner, just let’s pretend we never met before.”
It’s a pretty damning plot to juxtapose with the boys’ bonding and patriotic strains of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” The subtext — in war, you either go with the group or go it alone and either way you’ll act in morally reprehensible ways — is largely kept in the background. According to From Reality to Screen, Holden was worried about his character’s coziness with his captors and was vehement about adding Sefton’s declaration that he hates Nazis. Wilder refused. Elsewhere, against Paramount’s wishes, the director insisted on making the prison camp dirty, emphasizing the muddy grounds. (Although one would hardly call the film “gritty” today: the prisoners’ clothes remain neat and the interiors were clearly shot on a soundstage.)
The typical war movie, no matter how disturbing, seeks to create order out of chaos. Stalag 17 does so via the pleasing machinations of a prison break. Not only do the characters control the chaos, but they also escape from it. Wilder may have had twisted motivations for bringing broad gags to a prison camp, something equivalent to The Apartment‘s bitter frisson. Yet despite its hints at a harsh critique of wartime social Darwinism, Stalag 17 never rises above the war movie conventions.