I got into trouble after watching this film. As I was recommending it to Bob, I casually mentioned that a certain actor was in it: “he plays the bad guy”, I said. Doh! Apparently the rule of spoilers still holds true even when the film was made 60 years ago. Consider me in the doghouse.
Glossing over that minor indiscretion, this is a likeable, easygoing film that uses the backdrop of a German PoW camp in December 1944 to focus on a small group of incarcerated US soldiers. If it seems at all cliched or stereotypical, it’s probably because it was one of the first films of its kind, and set the tone for everything from The Colditz Story to The Great Escape via the long-running TV series Hogan’s Heroes.
Stalag 17 is a comedy as much as a war film, but it doesn’t dodge the more unpalatable truths of PoW life. Two would-be escapees are killed in the opening salvo, launching an internal investigation by the planning committee as to what went wrong. Suspicion falls on Sefton (William Holden), a black market hustler with a seemingly constant supply of cigarettes. When two recently-downed officers enter the camp, one is accused of sabotage and the PoWs must siphon him away from the Gestapo without tipping off the informer.
Familiar characters are all present and correct – the weary US commander, the comedy double-act, together with the buffoon-ish camp commandant with more than a hint of Franz Liebkind about him. It was fun trying to work out the villain’s identity (I didn’t), and the conclusion is well crafted. It does feel a bit of a cop out to have the villain as an ethnic German, rather than a turncoat American, but only because it conveniently prohibits any form of moral ambiguity than might be otherwise suggested.
Although the occasional Carry On-style humour is dated, this was an engaging film and it was interesting to see the origins of so many cinematic staples. Not least of which was a subtle”I’m Spartacus” scene, a full seven years prior to the release of Kubrick’s classic. It’s a quiet and restrained moment, with none of the flamboyance which typified the latter film. It nonetheless made an indelible impression on the many bigger, louder and brasher films to come.