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Stalag 17

Stalag 17(1953)

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The unlikely Broadway hit Stalag 17 became an equally unlikely film hit in this 1953 screen adaptation. The story revolves about the activities in a German prisoner-of-war camp that is kept under the broad Teutonic thumb of Col. von Scherbach (the great Otto Preminger). "Hoffy" (Richard Erdman) is the officer in charge of the inmates of his particular barracks, which numbers several very individual characters, all of whom are working out how to cope with their confinement in their own way. Among them are Stanislas "Animal" Kasava (Robert Strause, repeating his stage role), who is devastated when his heartthrob Betty Grable marries a band leader, and his sidekick Harry Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck, also from the Broadway production).

There is also a sergeant known as Sefton (William Holden), a world-weary, cynical man who has turned trading goods with the German guards into an art form, which allows him to get almost anything he wants. It also brings him under the suspicion of his fellow prisoners, who believe he's been too successful and might be selling information to the Germans for perks. Their suspicions grow when a pair of POWs attempting to escape run directly into the barrels of the machine guns of three German soldiers. Sefton predicted that the escapees wouldn't get beyond the woods, and his accuracy causes his fellow prisoners to lock onto Sefton as their spy. But while the other inmates are preparing for the forthcoming Christmas season, trying to scam the guards out of supplies (without Sefton's success), and thumbing their noses at Col. von Scherbach, Sefton secretly watches every move of the others in order to ferret out the spy before he can give away the details of an important prison break.

Stalag 17 is a highly unusual film: a raucous, sometimes over-the-top comedy on a subject that most would not find any room for humor, with ultimately serious overtones. Adapted from the stage play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski (who has a funny cameo as a prisoner who has received a "Dear John" letter and doesn't recognize what it is). They had been prisoners of war together and based the story on their own experiences. The play received an overhaul by director Billy Wilder and Edwin Blum, effectively opening the action up and taking it outside of the strict confines of the barracks. Still, most of the film takes place within the claustrophobic setting of the barracks itself.

William Holden was not the first choice for the role of Sefton. The producers had wanted Charlton Heston, who fortunately was busy elsewhere. But William Holden was a hard sell: He was sent to see the play on Broadway and walked out after the first act because he disliked it so much. Holden was later convinced to do the film, and his sly, enigmatic performance earned him an Oscar®. Richard Strauss, whose performance gives new meaning to "over the top," also received an nomination for his role as "Animal."

The disc includes a feature length commentary by Richard Erdman, who played Hoffy, Gil Stratton, who played Cookie (Sefton's right hand man), and Donald Bevan, co-author of the original play. This is a delightful couple of hours spent with three old friends who don't necessarily share a lot about the film, but reminisce about the fellow actors and what it was like to work with Wilder. The documentary Stalag 17: from Reality to Screen features equally delightful on-screen interviews with these three men, as well as with other crew, who talk about working with Wilder and working with Preminger, himself a noted director (Erdman shares a story of Preminger doing one of his scenes, making his exit and saying, "Cut! Print! Brilliant!").

The Real Heroes of Stalag 17 is a fascinating and heartbreaking documentary looking back at life in the Stalag (which was naturally cleaned up for the movie), with survivors of the camp. They describe arrival at the camp, and then the day to day grind of living there. One of the most surprising facts to come out in the documentary is the reality about "trading", which figures so notoriously in the film: apparently inmates had to learn to trade with the German guards in an attempt to supplement their own food supplies.

Paramount's new transfer for their Special Collector's Edition DVD has been struck from source material that is in excellent condition, with a restored mono soundtrack. The image is beautifully contrasted throughout, with deep blacks, clearly defined shadings, and no blooming of white areas.

For more information about Stalag 17, visit Paramount Home Entertainment. To order Stalag 17, go to TCM Shopping.

by Fred Hunter