Barely eight years after the end of the Second World War, STALAG 17 (1953) is a comedy-drama set in a German prisoner-of-war camp might have been a tough sell. And probably would have been for anyone but Billy Wilder who pulled it off with typically acerbic elan, hitting the bullseye with critics and audiences alike. The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, in a rare burst of unvarnished enthusiasm, proclaimed it “Cracker jack movie entertainment”, and it cleaned up at the international box office to the tune of ten million dollars, a not inconsiderable haul in the early 1950s.
The film’s appeal might have narrowed over the years, but it is still a remarkably effective piece of work. Proof of that can be found in the reaction it received when it was broadcast on American TV on the night of September 11, 2001. It had been scheduled far in advance of the terrorist attacks, but it proved the prefect tonic for a traumatized nation. In a state of collective shock Americans were comforted by an old-fashioned, patriotic yarn drawn from a conflict in which they had ultimately triumphed. Far from the flag-waving, blood-and-thunder jingoism of many Hollywood war films, it was seen as a gentle, even light-hearted, reminder that character and strong values can vanquish the most terrible of evils.
Which is somewhat, if not wholly, at odds with the film’s true nature. Adapted by Wilder from the Broadway play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski (based on their experiences in a German POW camp) STALAG 17 might have mellowed over the years, but it is still quite as caustic as anything he ever devised. Set in the titular prisoner-of-war camp, a facility inhabited by US Air Force sergeants, it begins with an attempted escape by two inmates of Barracks 4, Manfredi and Johnson – an attempt cooly predicted by Sgt. J. J. Sefton (William Holden) to fail. So confident is Sefton, in fact, that he’s prepared to bet two packs of cigarettes on the outcome. Sure enough, Manfredi and Johnson are mown down by prison guards lying in wait for them at the mouth of the tunnel. Not surprisingly this raises suspicions that there is a rat in the barracks – suspicions that, given his apparent foreknowledge of the escape and open trading with the Germans, fall squarely on Sefton.
What follows is the classic POW yarn, replete with escape plots, buffoonish guards, a sadistic commandant, camaraderie, conflict and a terrific twist ending – part thriller, part comedy, part detective story. It also boasts an unforgettable rogues gallery of supporting characters, notably Otto Preminger as Commandant Colonel Oberst von Scherbach, Robert Strauss as Sgt. Stanislaus ‘Animal’ Kuzawa, and Sig Ruman as Sgt. Johan Schultz; a great performance by Holden in the lead; and, of course, Wilder’s sly, sardonic take on human nature and legendarily mordent wit.
As usual it was a concoction that precious few, save Wilder, had much love for in its formative stages. The play had been a big hit in New York, eventually running almost 500 performances, but true to form, Wilder was determined his script would have more bite, darkening the humor and upping the dramatic stakes. In particular, he wanted Sefton to be truly dislikeable – in an early scene, for instance, where he refutes the charge of treachery, he is ostentatiously frying himself a fresh egg procured from the Germans.
The role of Sefton was originally written with Charlton Heston in mind, but Heston backed off when Wilder chose to make the character even less heroic. Kirk Douglas passed for similar reasons (he didn’t even like the play, apparently) and the part ended up at Holden’s door. At that point, Holden, who had excelled in Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) three years earlier, was the director’s number one choice. Holden, however, had other ideas. He hated the play even more than Douglas, allegedly walking out in disgust after the first act. Still, either forced by Paramount under the terms of his contract– or succumbing to Wilder’s powers of persuasion (accounts differ)– he eventually accepted. Which is not to say he was happy about it. Throughout the production he complained bitterly to Wilder about Sefton’s character, aggrieved at having to play such a louse with the war still fresh in the collective memory. He implored Wilder to make Sefton more sympathetic. Wilder declined and was (of course) entirely vindicated.
Holden won the 1953 Oscar for Best Actor, an award he accepted with what was, up to then, the shortest speech in the Academy’s history, a brusque “Thank you”. It was brevity born not of disrespect but necessity. The TV broadcast was running long and he was in danger of being cut off entirely. Holden later took out full-page ads in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter showering fulsome praise on his collaborators.
STALAG 17 premiered in New York on 1 July 1953 and went on to become one of the biggest hits of Wilder’s career, although itt did nothing to swell his personal fortunes. Expecting a major pay-day, he was informed by Paramount that since his last picture for them, ACE IN THE HOLE (1951), had bombed, the loss would be deducted from STALAG 17 ’s profits, thus wiping out his back end.
Wilder parted ways with Paramount shortly afterwards, although it was not financial double-dealing that occasioned the split but a point of principal.
By the 1950s, West Germany was an important overseas market for Hollywood and it was suggested to Wilder by a Paramount executive that, to maximize STALAG 17’s box office potential in the territory, he make the camp guards Polish. Wilder, whose mother and stepfather had perished at Auschwitz, was incensed. He refused point-blank, furiously demanding an apology from the executive. When none was forthcoming, he took his business – and his genius – elsewhere.