Title: Stalag 17
Release Date: July 1, 1953
Director: Billy Wilder
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Set in the prisoner of war camp in Germany in December 1944, Stalag 17 sits somewhere between the grim realism of A Man Escaped and the goofiness of Hogan Heroes (at tv show clearly drew upon this movie for influence). The story focuses on a barracks of American prisoners where attempts at escape and the possession of a radio are foiled by the genial and seemingly incompetent guard, Sergeant Johann Sebastian Schulz (Sig Ruman). The men in the barracks suspect that one of their own is a spy, and suspicion falls on a cynical Bostonian who has succeeded in bargaining for luxuries with the Germans, J.J. Sefton (William Holden, reunited with director Billy Wilder after Sunset Boulevard).
The move successfully balances drama with comedy. A lot of screen time is given to Stanislas “Animal” Kuzawa (Robert Strauss ) and Harry Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) whose comic antics keep the barracks loose. At times, it feels more like a frat house than a prison camp, especially when the men leer at the Russian women prisoners in an adjacent camp. Meanwhile, Sefton works to clear his name and find the real stoolie, while all the prisoner work to defend Lieutenant James Dunbar (Don Taylor) from execution. If there’s one flaw with the movie is that the audience isn’t given any clues on who is spying for the Germans although I suppose the movie isn’t meant to be a mystery. The movie also features a young Peter Graves, of Mission: Impossible and Airplane! fame as the barracks security chief, Frank Price.
I watched this movie multiple times when I was young, and I’m happy to say that it still holds up as an engaging film. I didn’t know who Billy Wilder was back then, but now that I’ve seen more of his work, I can definitely say that Wilder was a versatile and talented writer and director.