The trenchant trenches of a German POW camp, uneven but not without its gallows humor fascination. Made just eight years after the end of WWII, writer-director Wilder's classic black comedy is too cross-pollinated by slapstick Germans, who interfere with the abrasive edge of satirical
statements on free enterprise and oppressed peoples banding together to become a variation on witch-hunting fascists. But the film did amazing things for Holden. Even in SUNSET BOULEVARD he was transforming from the handsome juvenille lead of yore. His performance made him Bogie's successor to
American Cynicism; without a doubt, Holden was one of the finest actors of his generation, thanks to his scrunched-face concentration which surprised you with its quick-change range. Holden plays Sefton, the glib loner whose scams and scheming make life in Stalag 17 bearable for him but incurs the
wrath of his fellow POWs. Still, they willingly participate in the games and attractions (like observing female Russian prisoners through a telescope) he operates for fun and profit. When two prisoners are killed while trying to escape, the Americans come to believe an informer is in their midst,
and suspicion falls on Sefton. Later, after the camp's sadistic commandant, Von Scherbach (brilliantly played by director Preminger, in a take on Stroheim in LA GRANDE ILLUSION), learns how newcomer Dunbar (Don Taylor) managed to blow up a train, the POWs are certain Sefton is the rat and make
life miserable for him.
Unlike previous POW films, Wilder and co-writer Edwin Blum's script, based on the play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, presents the prisoners not as paragons of patriotic virtue but as real, self-interested, bored soldiers trying to survive. Holden is magnificent as the heel-turned-hero, but
STALAG 17 is full of wonderful, well-directed performances, including Sig Rumann as the barracks guard (the prototype for John Banner's Sgt. Schultz on "Hogan's Heroes," the long-running TV series inspired by the film); Gil Stratton, Jr., as Sefton's gopher; Harvey Lembeck and Robert Strauss as
the barracks clowns; and real-life war hero Neville Brand. Peppered with Wilder's distinctive biting wit, STALAG 17 was justly a hit with the critics and at the box office.
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