FilmJuice have my review of Billy Wilder’s misleading P.O.W. comedy Stalag 17. I say “misleading” as while the film was initially marketed as a tribute to America’s brave prisoners of war, the film’s depiction of life in a World War II prison camp is actually far from flattering.
Originally a hugely-successful Broadway play, Stalag 17 revolves around a group of American POWs who are trying to escape the camp. Using all of their initiative and sneakiness, the men dig tunnels, fashion civilian clothes and scout for weaknesses in German security only to wind up delivering their escapees into the waiting arms of German machine-gun fire. Shocked but reticent to engage in any form of concerted self-criticism, the group’s frustrations wind up being unleashed on William Holden’s Sefton, a cynical individualist who would rather profit from the group’s desires than aid in their fulfilment. What makes this film “misleading” is the fact that, rather than conforming to genre expectations and producing a film all about a bunch of POWs coming together to outwit the Germans, Wilder has produced a film that portrays American POWs as boorish, overbearing idiots. In fact, Sefton’s rugged individualist is quite obviously intended to be the film’s point-of-view character:
Stalag 17 is not exactly the easiest film to get into. In fact, the film is almost completely unwatchable for most of its opening hour. The problem is that the film ostensibly plays lip service to the idea of the Good War by presenting many of the POWs as happy-go-lucky scamps. Stalag 17 is often described as an iconic film as it was one of the first films about the Second World War to present the Germans as figures of fun rather than menace. Just as this vision of the Nazis as effeminate, strutting nincompoops would later inform British comedies like ‘Allo ‘Allo, the idea that prisoners of war could pull off elaborate schemes under the noses of their German captors would later inspire 168 episodes of the American sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. What makes the film very nearly unwatchable is the fact that virtually all of its jokes are embarrassingly unfunny: First we have the incessant torrent of anti-German comments that are really little more than crude xenophobic sniping dressed up as banter. Then we have about a dozen different jokes involving an over-weight man falling over and finally we have a scene in which hundreds of well-fed American POWs scream and gesture lewdly at a bunch of terrified female prisoners. This type of humour might well have passed muster amidst the jingoism and sexism of 1950s America but it actually makes the POWs come across as a bunch of boorish idiots… and therein lays the point.
My review places Stalag 17 in the broader context of Wilder’s career and his tendency to view American society in very cynical terms but it also occurs to me that films like Stalag 17 could very well mark the point at which war-time solidarity left the American cultural bloodstream, taking any and all faith in collective action with it. Sefton’s rugged individualism provides the film with its moral centre precisely because America was entering an age where it became the individual’s moral duty to look to their own advancement whilst questioning any and all conceptions of the public good that were not grounded in material largesse.