“I don’t know about you, but it always makes me sore when I see those war pictures … all about flying leathernecks and submarine patrols and frogmen and guerillas in the Philippines. What gets me is that there never w-was a movie about POWs – about prisoners of war. Now, my name is Clarence Harvey Cook; they call me Cookie. I was shot down over Magdeburg, Germany, back in ’43; that’s why I stammer a little once in a while, ‘specially when I get excited. I spent two and a half years in Stalag 17. “Stalag” is the German word for prison camp, and Number 17 was somewhere on the Danube. There were about 40,000 POWs there, if you bothered to count the Russians, and the Poles, and the Czechs. In our compound there were about 630 of us, all American airmen: radio operators, gunners, and engineers. All sergeants. Now, you put 630 sergeants together, and, oh mother, you’ve got yourself a situation. There was more fireworks shooting off around that joint … take for instance the story about the spy we had in our barracks …”
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. The premise is we’re in World War II, but not where all of the action is. There aren’t any big firefights, and you won’t see or hear any of those big guns raining Armageddon down on some poor hapless pinned-down soldiers. Instead we’re inside of a German POW camp, which they called Stalags. This one is run by a self-important commandant who takes pride in the fact that there has never been an escape from his Stalag. The prisoners themselves are always trying to find a way to outwit the camp Sergeant, a rather rotund officer named Shultz. Of course, I’m talking about Hogan’s Heroes. But I’m not. 12 years before the CBS comedy would hit the airwaves, iconic film director Billy Wilder gave us a quasi-serious version of that particular scenario in the film Stalag 17. The film was based on a contemporary Broadway production written by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski based on their own actual experiences at the real Stalag 17. The film was originally planned as a vehicle for Charlton Heston, but when Wilder came on to direct, he immediately dismissed the idea, believing that it would become a Charlton Heston film more than a film about its own actual elements, and he was likely correct. Heston was big at the time, coming off larger-than-life parts like Moses and Ben Hur. The role went to William Holden, and the casting would become one of those lightning-in-a-bottle kind of things that can elevate a film from good to classic. And by the way, Wilder and gang sued Hogan’s Heroes when it did arrive on the scene but were not successful.
The camp is an elite POW camp. There are only sergeants in the camp, so you have a lot of officers and no one to take orders. There’s tension in a camp like this, and the Germans did everything they could to keep that tension boiling. One of those tactics was to plant a spy among the men and make it pretty obvious there was a spy by acting quickly on information that truly had no time to get out on its own. Stalag 17 is no different. The prime suspect among the prisoners is Sefton, played by William Holden. He is given a few liberties that include visits to the women’s camp and the ability to score plenty of booze. The tension builds to a point where the men are ready to take the matter into their own hands and do something about the traitor. But we know Sefton is innocent. The real culprit is Frank Price, who acts as the prisoners’ security officer. He’s played by a young, upcoming Peter Graves. Being in charge of security puts him in position to have all the juicy secrets and to help stir the pot against Sefton. Meanwhile he passes information using a chess set that is kept in the barracks. When he has a message, he puts a small piece of paper into the board’s queen and puts a knot in the overhead light to signal that there is indeed a message.
The film doesn’t really carry any secrets. You know who the bad guy is pretty early, but the tension and suspense surrounding the suspicions of Sefton keep the film always on that hard boil throughout. Knowing he’s innocent only helps to contribute to the drama building underneath it all. The tension is broken by a few light moments that usually involve Sergeant Shultz (Ruman), who absolutely served as the model for the John Banner character later on television. There’s even more than a little physical resemblance, and his relationship with the inmates of a kind of friend/enemy nature can’t be denied. Many of the sets were later completely stolen, as several of the films conceptual designs and even a couple of direct shot for shot moments exist between the two properties. Here the laughs aren’t quite so overt and campy, but they are there, and Wilder uses those moments to disarm his audience, particularly before something brutal is about to happen. In Hogan’s Heroes no one really dies, but Wilder isn’t playing by those rules here.
Wilder was always best at casting and letting his choices carry the film moments that he needs. William Holden delivers an Oscar-winning performance as the scapegoat Sefton. You have to love the nuance of the performance. He tries his best to roll with the circumstances, all the while being crafty enough to solve the case on his own. He takes some serious licks and doesn’t really fight back very strongly. Holden is a man playing for time and making the physical and emotional sacrifices to buy that time.
Wilder was also nominated for Best Director, and this film makes a strong case for the win. But he was going up against Fred Zinnemann foe From Here To Eternity, just as actor Robert Strauss was going up against Frank Sinatra for Best Supporting Actor. Both lost, but they lost to some pretty stiff competition. Still, Holden beat out the likes of Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster ,and Richard Burton for his statuette. By the way he gave the second shortest acceptance speech in Oscars history: “Thank you.”
Strauss bears notable mention here as the comedic Animal, a part he played in both the film and the earlier stage production of the film. He has a wonderful scene where he is posing as a painter to try to get into the women’s camp. The delivery is pure magic, and he deserved the Oscar nomination. This was without a doubt his best role.
The cast is filled with many standouts including director/actor Otto Preminger, who you might recognize as Mr. Freeze from the 1960’s Batman series. Sig Ruman had a career that went deep into the silent era and is best known for the Marx Brothers’ A Night At The Opera and White Christmas. He plays the later quite imitated Sergeant Shultz.
Stalag 17 is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The ultra-high-definition image presentation is arrived at with an HEVC codec at an average of 60 mbps. The film was shot on 35mm, so is native 4K. There has also been extensive restoration here, and it shows. The restoration retains the grain, but keeps it under tight control so that it never looks like compression artifact or digital noise. It retains the atmospheric film quality that is both engaging and ever-dynamic. The Dolby Vision grants us a much more subtle delineation with perfectly detailed black levels and shadow definition. You’ll get a lot of fine texture in the rather limited sets. The film is shot mostly inside the barracks, and the few movements out of doors allows it all to breathe and experience the frigid conditions of the wintery camp. Detail is as good as it ever was, and this is the closest you’ll get to seeing the film at a theatre on a large screen. It’s a restoration that doesn’t call a lot of attention to itself and is notable more for what is not there than what is.
The DTS-HD MA 2.0 track is faithful to the source material. It’s a dialog-heavy film, and that is what must be serviced here. Nothing fancy, just crystal-clear dialog. Perfect.
There are two features:
Stalag 17 – From Reality To Film: (22:01) Vintage look at the film’s iconic sets and moments.
The Real Heroes Of Stalag 17: (24:47) Actual prisoners of the camp share their experiences.
This is one of those films I have found too unfortunately forgotten. The sad part is as much as I loved Hogan’s Heroes, it has upstaged the classic film I hope it was trying to bring attention to. It didn’t really work out that way, and it’s unfortunate. Kino is giving you a chance just in time for Christmas to acquaint yourself with a forgotten masterpiece. “I said ya can say it again, that doesn’t mean ya hafta repeat it!”