The consensus of some movie collectors is that the constant re-releasing of titles is little more than a profit making scheme by the studios. To at least some extent there is an iota of truth to this but there is a very tangible benefit to it. One main rational given is collectors frequently want old favorites in the latest format derived from the current best technology. Consistent with this many of my personal favorites have been added again to my shelves one more time in the high definition of Blu-ray. There is a more important reason to embrace these subsequent releases; they introduce a new generation to some of the cinematic greats that have shaped the cinematic artistry of our culture. Recently a sixty year old classic has resurfaced to demonstrate to modern film enthusiasts how a suspenseful drama should be crafted; ‘Stalag 17’. This movie holds together even after six decades as one of the greatest war time stories and exploration of prolonged stress on a human being ever made.
Much of World War Two was fought in the skies over Europe. On all too many occasions the intrepid aviators were shot down and if they survived were taken as prisoners and incarcerated in facilities behind enemy lines. This story is set in 1944 in Stalag 17, a Luftwaffe prisoner-of-war camp located near the Danube River. This camp held a variety of prisoners representing the range of nations opposing the Nazi campaign to aggression. The narrator of this story is provided by an American, Clarence Harvey Cook (Gil Stratton), known simply as Cookie to his fellow prisoners. It was the sworn duty of every imprisoned military officer to escape from a POW camp and return to his command. This was a source of continual consternation for their captors. Plans to break out as many prisoners as possible were more than just getting back into the fight; it consumed enemy resources tracking them down. It was not uncommon for the Nazis to surreptitiously implant spies into the barracks to ferret out any such plans and perhaps glean any information that might have tactical benefits. This film is arguably one of the best examinations of this set of these circumstances ever made.
A pair of prisoners attempted to escape through a tunnel dug under the barb wire fence surrounding the camp. As soon as they emerge they are gunned down by waiting guards. The conclusion that the other prisoners understandably come to is there is an informant working for the Nazis among them. The suspicion falls on J.J. Sefton (William Holden), not as a result of any concrete evidence but due to his unlikeable affect. He trades freely with the Nazis for various luxuries hording them for distribution only if his price is met. His personality is cynical, antisocial and completely motivated by his own self interests. He takes bet on anything possible using the tightly rationed cigarettes as currency. Personally he only smokes cigars he obtains in through his bartering. Most recently he scored a big win betting against the men killed in the escape attempt. This only served to greatly enhance the hatred of the other men and their belief he is the collaborator. He is openly opposed to any attempts to escape citing the foolishness and futility of the effort. If you do manage to get away all you’ll get are some ribbons for your uniform and transport to the Pacific. Then the cycle will repeat only the Japanese POW camps are notoriously worse than anything in Germany.
The prisoners do their best to hold on to their tenuous sanity by contriving little petty rebellious actions defying their captors. The non-com in charge of their barracks is Sargent Schulz (Sig Ruman). While he feigns a degree of acceptance of his charges it is only a ploy to keep things as peaceful as possible. His is true to der Fatherland an ultimately revealed to be crucial to gathering the clandestine information. The Commandant overseeing the entire camp is Luftwaffe Colonel von Scherbach (Otto Preminger) whose only concern is maintaining order in the facility in his charge. One of the ways the men hold on to the meager grasp on sanity is a crude radio they use to listen to BBC broadcasts. It is passed from one barracks to the next become crucial to the moral of the entire Stalag. When a guard confiscates the device knowing precisely when it was move they are certain the stoolie was responsible.
Sefton bribes the Germans to spend time in the women’s barracks. When this is observed with his own telescope held in his stash everyone is convinced. This prompts Sefton to launch his own investigation. He determines a knot in a light cord and a hollow chess piece are the means of notifying the Germans, this then reveals the barracks security chief, Price (Peter Graves), as the spy. The problem is if revealed the Germans will simply replace him. A new prisoner, Lieutenant James Schuyler Dunbar (Don Taylor) is wanted for blowing up a German ammunition dump and is missing, hidden somewhere in the compound. This pushes the end game of this masterpiece towards its suspenseful conclusion.
This film won an Academy Award for Holden and supporting nomination for Robert Strauss, who portrayed the camp comedian, Sgt. Stanislaus 'Animal' Kuzawa. It also garnered a Director nomination for six times Oscar winner, Billy Wilder who also adapted the Broadway stage play for the screen. His wins and numerous nominations were split between his talented abilities as director and earning him the well-deserved place as an artistic giant of cinema. A sizable number of World War Two themed films were jingoistic pieces designed to promote the war effort or sustain our moral superiority as a nation. While these factors are present here they are certainly not the primary motivation. This movie remains as relevant today as ever; as powerful a story now as it was sixty years ago or as it will be sixty years hence. The reason lies in the way the story is crafted on every level. This is more than a tale that might be seen on the History Channel concerning events that happened a few generations back. The lasting relevance is derived from the intense exploration of the emotional toll and psychological damaged done to men forced to endure the prolonged pressure of confinement by an openly hostile force. Sefton reacted in a manner that worked for him, personalizing survival despite the ostrazation is caused and the hatred he had to endure. Others like Animal learned to cope by letting others laugh at him and with him. The film is an intense view of what happens when once reasonable men are forced to face unreasonable conditions. In a situation like this solidarity is critical to survival. It is the same intrinsic force that brings animals together into herds or packs and early man into tribes. When a spy infiltrates the sanctity of this group it is beyond a personal betrayal, it undermines the fabric of their makeshift society by seeding distrust. These themes are universal. While they might find an explicit means of expression within the context of a POW camp it easily translates to any time or place.
Commentary By Actors Richard Erdmann and Gil Stratton and Co-Playwright