Billy Wilder’s terrific World War Two comedy drama finds William Holden on Oscar-winning form as a cynical American GI suspected of being a spy by his fellow inmates in a German POW camp. Don Taylor co-stars alongside legendary film director Otto Preminger, who makes a huge impression in front of the camera as the camp’s commandant.
The day after I published the post about my favorite war movies, Mom said she felt like watching Stalag 17 (which I was quite happy about, to put it lightly), so we did, and then I decided to review it. Took me a little while to get the post going, but here it is, and I hope you enjoy it. I’m definitely going to stay away from spoilers, because one of the main focuses of this film is “Who’s the spy?” and I don’t want to be responsible for any spoilers you might read online. But I’m pretty sure I can still write a good review without spoilers, so here goes…
Like I mentioned in my last post, Stalag 17 has been one of my favorite movies for as long as I can remember. When I was younger, all the funny scenes held my interest, and now, it’s the suspense and characters and the touching thoughtfulness of certain scenes that keep me grounded in the Stalag 17 Fan Group. (I dunno if that’s an actual thing – if it was, I’d probably be president.) And yes, there’s definitely still tension and suspense even after watching the movie numerous times. And the amount of dislike I feel for The Spy is huuuuge (because, for one thing, I liked Manfredi and Johnson, even though you don’t get to see too much of them), but I’ll talk about that kind of stuff later on when I get to the characters.
Actually, I guess I’ll just talk about the characters right now.
It’s a bit hard to pick out a main character, since Stalag 17 is very much an ensemble story, but I suppose it would be Sefton (played by William Holden, who won an Oscar for his performance), the anti-hero who is, to quote Haymitch, “a strangely unlikable person”. My feelings about Sefton are mixed. He’s not a nice person, as his various little enterprises (designed to stiff the other POWs out of their Red Cross package contents) show very well, and yet you can’t help but root for him as the film progresses and draws all the characters – but especially him – into the tangle of suspicion and deceit. You might not like Sefton, but you do care about him (if that makes any sense). The scene where all the other POWs beat him up is probably my least favorite in the entire movie.
Then there are the other characters. Cookie, who narrates the whole thing, and who I feel a liking for most times. Hoffy, who my sister and I call ‘a Fitzgerald’ because he’s just that amazing – if Ashley’s reading this post, she’ll probably understand the reference. (And for those of you who don’t: John Fitzgerald was the senior POW in one of the camps that Louie Zamperini – him of Unbroken fame – stayed in for a time. Fitzgerald protected the men under him as best he could and was generally amazing. Elisabeth and I have started calling characters like Hoffy ‘Fitzgeralds’ – one of our weird little quirks.) Duke, who seems to be constantly angry, which I suppose is pretty accurate, but it does get tiring after a time. Animal and Harry, who provide the film’s comic relief. Dunbar (LIEUTENANT Dunbar, mind you) and his sergeant (I’ve forgotten his name and, frustratingly enough, can’t seem to find on Wikipedia), who I both like very much. Especially the sergeant. Price, played by Peter Graves, who my siblings and I know much better as Jim Phelps from the old Mission: Impossible TV series. And the Germans: the Kommandant, and Schultz, who are both excellent villains, but not favorite characters (obviously).
One of the reasons I enjoy Stalag 17 so much is because the whole thing is so clever. The way that funny scenes are followed by serious (and sometimes tragic) moments. How all the characters interact with each other and fit into the plot. Dialogue that’s sharp, that snaps and crackles off the script. And a plot that pulls all the best elements of story-telling together to bring the audience – and the characters – down to a tense, suspenseful, and ultimately satisfying conclusion. I’m always struck by how every element works together with all the others so perfectly – a writer’s dream.
Now, most people probably wouldn’t include Stalag 17 on their list of Christmas to-watch movies, but I’ve always thought of it as a Christmas movie, more or less, and I’ve resolved to watch it each year, around that time. In the first few sentences of narration, it’s explicitly stated that “it was about a week before Christmas” (and Cookie does throw in references to “a couple days before Christmas” and stuff like that through the whole thing) and the holiday time of year is part of what helps the plot along – if it hadn’t been Christmas time, where would the POWs have gotten the Ping Pong balls to make the smudge pot to help Dunbar escape? Plus, the Christmas scenes are touching (I’ll never be able to hear “Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful” without thinking of Stalag 17 and getting a wee bit emotional) and sometimes just plain interesting, like where Sefton explains to Cookie about how the spy could be a German infiltrator, instead of an American traitor.
To wrap up this review, I’m going to cram a few of my favorite little bits in the film into this paragraph. It’s much easier than trying to find a way to incorporate them into the actual review. 1). When Animal gives Joey the new piccolo. I get genuinely teary-eyed at this part. All of ‘the gang’ (and especially Animal) are so excited and happy for Joey and it’s happy and hopeful and I love that. 2). Cookie whistling “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again”, plus when they sing it for the first time. 3). How Sefton pieces the whole together, albeit verrrry slowly. 4). They decorate that tiny Christmas tree with their dog tags, which I’ve always found fascinating for some reason, and it actually doesn’t look half bad. 5). ALL OF IT, OKAY? I LOVE ALL OF IT.
Really, REALLY love it.
Stalag 17 is free to watch on Youtube, so go forth and enjoy the sheer awesomeness. And if you’ve already seen it, LET ME KNOW WHAT YOU THINK in the comments. (Please. If you want to.)