STA­LAG 17 (1953)

Starburst Magazine - - Reviews - JOHN KNOTT

BD / CERT: PG / DI­REC­TOR: BILLY WILDER / SCREEN­PLAY: BILLY WILDER, ED­WIN BLUM / STAR­RING: WIL­LIAM HOLDEN, DON TAY­LOR, OTTO PREMINGER, ROBERT STRAUSS, HAR­VEY LEM­BECK, PETER GRAVES, SIG RU­MAN, NEVILLE BRAND RICHARD ERD­MAN / RE­LEASED: OUT NOW

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 [ think we just veered into the au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal there – Ed]. Oh, right. Sorry about that. But you do re­mem­ber those movies don’t you? Both the Brits and Hol­ly­wood knocked out shed­loads dur­ing a ‘50s golden age un­til reach­ing a sort of big­bud­get 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 Blu­ray, 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 (Don Tay­lor) is tem­po­rar­ily bil­leted with them he says a bit too much about his pre-cap­ture Nazis­ab­o­tag­ing 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.

Ex­tras: In­ter­view with film scholar Neil Sin­yard / Trailer / 36-page book­let

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