Stalag 17 (1953) – Billy Wilder

This is a film I had been eager to see, and was glad to see it come up under the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book as a recommendation following my viewing of The Great Escape.

My eagerness to see it was twofold, I like Billy Wilder’s work, and Stalag 17 is the favourite movie of one of my favourite television characters, Thomas Magnum.

William Holden plays Sgt. J.J. Sefton, and he is stuck in a German POW camp. He’s a bit of con man, a scrounger, and could he be an informant to the Nazis? It’s Christmas 1944, and when two POWs are shot attempting escape, suspicion falls on J.J.

Sefton is quite happy to sit out the war in relative comfort, but now, he has to find out who the real snitch is before the entire camp turns against him in a mob.

Whoever the snitch is, they are letting the Nazis know about everything that is going on within the camp, and completely hindering any move that the Americans make in terms of rebellion of escape.

The reveal of who truly can’t be trusted is a but of stunner, and no matter how selfish Sefton is, he doesn’t necessarily deserve what happens to him because of the camp’s suspicion. You want justice for Sefton, and I was furious to discover who it really is, and want comeuppance for the character.

Holden won an Oscar for his performance and it’s a fine role, but I also rather like Gil Stratton’s turn as Cookie, who gets to do the film’s voice-over giving us the routine of the camp, and highlighting important characters. Also incredibly enjoyable is the character of Animal played by Robert Strauss.

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The film was shot sequentially, unusual in film-making, and its ending served as a surprise to a number of cast members. It’s also of interest to note that Holden didn’t want to make the film as he saw the character of J.J. as too cynical, and selfish, but his performance makes the character unforgettable.

Otto Preminger plays the head of the camp, Oberst von Sherbach, who is viciously charming and even witty.

There is drama, a hint of satire and even some comedic moments, and it’s a fantastic film that I should have seen a long time ago. Coming to it now definitely makes me appreciate the craft behind it, and Holden is nothing short of fantastic as Sefton.

Now, I know Magnum is a fictional character, but I can also understand why this would have been his favourite movie had he been an actual real-life person. There’s a lot to like in this film, there are great moments, interesting characters, and yeah, there is some pretty solid comedy.

The comedy laid the blueprints for a familiar television series sitcom that was sued by the script’s original authors, Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski – it was their play Wilder adapted – and was settled for an undisclosed amount.

I really enjoyed this one, and I think we can say it’s my second favourite Wilder film.

What’s yours?

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