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Stalag 17  

One of the first major films dealing with prisoners of war, Stalag 17 stars William Holden in his Oscar-winning performance as a deeply cynical prisoner who must prove his innocence when the rest of the prisoners accuse him of spying for the Germans who hold them.

Holden`s character of Sefton has never been well-liked at the prison camp, with his loner attitude and his willingness to take advantage of everyone else`s desperation. He comes up with numerous schemes, such as payment of a cigarette to peer through a telescope to take a gander at some Russian women taking showers, which allows him to bribe the Germans for privileges of his own. But the men`s indifference towards him grows to suspicion when a seemingly fool-proof escape plan ends in the shooting deaths of two American prisoners. Naturally, Sefton is the only suspect. Apparently, he is trading more than cigarettes to the Germans, but information as well.


Holden is the anti-hero in this case. It is easy to say that his companions have the wrong man, but there is really nothing very sympathetic about this man which would make us feel that he`s been wronged. The night when the two Americans attempt their escape, he bets everyone that they won`t make it out alive. And, sure enough, he is proven correct. If he is willing to bet on lives just for a bunch of cigarettes, which he then bribes the Germans with, then certainly he is heartless enough to pass along information to the Germans as well.

Holden`s performance ables us to be convinced that, spy or no, Sefton is not a straight-arrow. He does not have a nice thing to say about anyone, except perhaps Cookie, who is useful as someone who will attempt to protect Sefton`s goodies. Even when a high-ranking lietenant is tossed into the heap, Sefton mocks him for being a rich mamma`s boy. Sefton`s cynicism is an admission, which becomes apparant, that in such a situation as war, trust and friendship are fragile things, and so the best thing you can do is look out for yourself.

The great thing about this film is its structure and mood. This is a suspense film, set in a tense environment, where the enemy is always watching, always one step ahead of the desperate Americans. And yet this film surprises with its levels of comedy. Some viewers have been disappointed at the amount of humour in what should be a true war drama. If you are a viewer used to a movie like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Schindler`s List, or other WWII dramas, once you start hearing banter about fried eggs, you might wonder whether to take this seriously. But the humour does fit the story, since what else would you expect with a bunch of guys holed up for a few years? Some people have nothing else better to do than act silly, or make fun of the high command, or get involved in crazy hijinks. It keeps your mind off of things. As well, a bunch of guys holed up can`t help but be reminded of the lack of female company, and this film is loaded with such reminders. All of this is done as comedy, but is very appropriate, coming from the mind of a quick-witted, cynical writer such as Billy Wilder. All of Wilder`s movies contain this mixture of humour and bite, and this is no exception. But here, the suspense is equally potent, especially at the end, which takes a truly black-hearted form.

Wilder seems also to engage in an inside joke with the casting of director Otto Preminger (Anatomy of a Murder) as the German commandant. Preminger was rumoured to be somewhat of a tyrant as a director, and certainly, a German commandant is pretty close to a tyrant.

On the basis of this film, the combination of William Holden and Billy Wilder can do no wrong. Sunset Boulevard is a fine example of their work together, and so is Stalag 17.

David Macdonald

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