Those of you of a certain age will remember that a ‘70s Sunday afternoon consisted of sitting on a turquoise plastic sofa round your gran’s watching Prisoner of War flicks while older generations argued politics in the kitchen next door. After all, grandad was a staunch trade unionist and could never get over his daughter marrying a Tory . Oh, right. Sorry about that. But you do remember those movies don’t you? Both the Brits and Hollywood knocked out shed-loads during a ‘50s golden age until reaching a sort of big-budget nirvana with The Great Escape (1963) and a bizarre last hurrah with Escape to Victory (1981). There was just something about the formula of defiant allied soldiers getting one over on (often comic) Nazis that never failed. With lots of room for an array of disparate characters thrown together in the relatively-cheap-to-film confines of a prison camp, the attraction was easy to see. Hollywood’s first crack at the genre was Stalag 17 (1953) and it very nearly didn’t get released. Paramount, in their infinite wisdom, thought nobody would want to see a film about POWs. Presumably the Brit’s The Wooden Horse (1950) had passed them by, but in the end they went for it and got themselves a hit and an Academy Award for William Holden. Now we’ve got the Blu-ray, so how does it fare today?
The story is a good one: the American inmates of Barracks 4 don’t seem to be having much luck with their escape attempts. Are they jinxed? Or is there an informer in their midst? The cynical operator Sefton (William Holden) seems the most likely culprit but it wouldn’t be too much of a spoiler to say he’s just way too obvious. When an officer is temporarily billeted with them (Don Taylor) he says a bit too much about his pre-capture Nazi-sabotaging exploits. He’s soon in the Commandant’s (Otto Preminger) office and about to be handed over to the Gestapo who will most certainly shoot him. Can the plucky POWs get him out? Or will they be undone by that spy?
The first thing you notice about Stalag 17 is that today it seems inappropriately light-hearted. This is a movie that sees two airmen mercilessly machine-gunned in the opening minutes so the comedy-relief and whacky antics of the brilliant Richard Strauss and Harvey Lembeck seem incongruous to say the least. But when the war was a recent memory, humour was actually commonplace in this sort of fare, and comedic-yet-ruthless Nazis were strangely ubiquitous. Nevertheless, Billy Wilder’s script seems as sharp as ever and Holden’s performance as the anti-heroic Sefton is still pitch-perfect. The whodunit? element of the story works brilliantly while at the same time it cleverly juxtaposes cynicism with heroism and is as satisfying as it was the first time we saw it.
Needless to say, the monochrome is wonderful on Blu-ray because monochrome is always wonderful on Blu-ray.
Special Features: Interview with film scholar Neil Sinyard / Trailer / 36-page booklet
STALAG 17 (1953) / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: BILLY WILDER / SCREENPLAY: BILLY WILDER, EDWIN BLUM / STARRING: WILLIAM HOLDEN, DON TAYLOR, OTTO PERMINGER, ROBERT STRAUSS, HARVEY LEMBECK, PETER GRAVES, SIG RUMAN, NEVILLE BRAND RICHARD ERDMAN / RELEASED: JULY 27TH