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Director Billy Wilder is known for crafting some of the most iconic (if not THE iconic) films in almost every genre ranging from Comedy (SOME LIKE IT HOT) to drama (SUNSET BOULEVARD) and everything in-between (DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE LOST WEEKEND and WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION to name a few).
He does it in grand style with the World War II POW escape film STALAG 17, which is a well-balanced mix of comedy, drama and suspense. Considered one of the definitive prison escape films, it also paved the way for TV shows like HOGAN’S HEROES and M.A.S.H.
Based on a successful Broadway play, STALAG 17 is set during the waning years of the second world war and the main characters are the American sergeants that populate the German prison camp of the title. Narrated by one of the prisoners, we learn about a time when a German spy infiltrated the camp and how it caused havoc and dissention amongst the prisoners.
As more secrets are revealed to the sadistic commandant Oberst Von Schernbach (Otto Preminger) including one that lead to the death of two escaping prisoners, the men want to ferret out the mole.
All eyes are on the arrogant Sgt. Sefton (William Holden) who seems to already have a special relationship with the guards and goes out of his way to isolate himself from the others.
As the evidence stacks up against him, the others turn on him, even though he may not be the spy after all.
What makes Wilder such a masterful director is his ability to deftly maintain the balance of comedy and drama. As silly as the film can get at times (which it does), there’s still that sense of dread that real lives are at stake.
The cast is fantastic and Holden won an Oscar for his role, though many maintain that he really won for his performance in SUNSET BOULEVARD the previous year. A fact that enraged Holden.The story has it that he threw his Oscar across the room when his unsupportive wife agreed with the sentiment.
STALAG 17 is a MUST SEE MOVIE if you’re a fan of World War II films, prison escape movies or just plain great cinema. I can’t think of a better prison term than being confined to (watch) STALAG 17 for a few hours.