Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Stalag 17 (1953)

Two films, a decade apart, offer very different takes on the Allied prisoner-of-war experience during the Second World War.

The Great Escape, from director John Sturges in 1963, boasts an all-star cast including James Garner, Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough. It's based on the true story of the largest POW escape and the resulting massacre of 50 of the escapees. McQueen's exploits on a motorcycle at the film's end is a lasting image from that film. Shot in colour by director John Sturges, The Great Escape is a must-see film. The book on which it's based, Paul Brickhill's The Great Escape, is also a great read. Here, POWs work together to outwit their German captors who are continually looking for tunnel activity. The film, despite the murder of so many young men, ends on an optimistic note.

Stalag 17, shot a decade earlier in gritty black and white by Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot, Sunset Boulevard), centres the conflict on the prisoners themselves. The film ends on a cynical note.

When two prisoners attempt an escape early in the film, Sgt. J.J. Sefton (William Holden) bets the pair will be caught within minutes of slipping out of camp. His prediction proves true and the other prisoners that share the barracks with him are convinced Sefton tipped off the Germans. Sefton's charmed existence in the camp certainly makes him a suspicious character - he bribes the guards, enjoys access to luxuries the others can only dream about - liquor, eggs and makes no qualms about wanting no part of escape efforts. He's dedicated to making himself as comfortable as possible while in captivity. Sefton isn't very nice, but he's no traitor. And, despite what people think of him, he offers many diversions to pass the time, from gambling to moonshine and a telescope to see female prisoners being deloused.

Sefton tries to find the tipster in the barracks as demands for retribution against him escalate. He's in a situation that can't be solved with his business savvy. The stakes get raised when the Germans learn from their source that a recently captured American, Lieut. James Dunbar (Don Taylor), destroyed a train carrying much-needed ammunition. The SS want him.

Stalag 17, as a drama, works very well. Misplaced loyalties and quick judgments take their toll. It's the film's comedic efforts that wear thin on this viewer. Holden deserved his Oscar nomination, and win, for best actor. But the supporting actor nod for Robert Strauss as 'Animal' Kuzawa is baffling. He's infatuated with Betty Grable and longs to meet Russian women who are held prisoner in a nearby compound. His dreams of being with The Girl with the Million Dollar Legs grow tiresome, as do the efforts of his buddy Sgt. Harry Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) to redirect his attentions.

Stalag 17 does offer an early cinematic nod to post-traumatic stress disorder with Joey (Robinson Stone), a prisoner who doesn't speak after seeing the other members of his bomber crew killed in their aircraft.

Wilder's film, then, is something of an uneven effort. The mystery surrounding the tipster is riveting. The comedy, often, just isn't that funny.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Several members of the film's cast appeared in an earlier Broadway production including Strauss and William Pierson.

Stalag 17 also earned Wilder an Oscar nomination for best director.

Don Taylor went on to direct with credits including The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977) and The Final Countdown .

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