In the summer of 1953, “Stalag 17” was released, and became one of the biggest successes of Billy Wilder, the most Oscar-nominated man in old Hollywood. It’s a weird name and it’s a weird movie.
It’s set during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, near the end of World War II, but it’s not about the war. It’s about a POW camp where Nazis torment American airmen—but it’s not a tragedy. I hope that gets your attention, because you’re in for a great surprise: an all-American movie utterly without imitation.
Moreover, it has a strange authenticity: It’s an adaptation of a Broadway play written by two former POWs in the camp of that name, Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski. It has the snappy dialogue and suspense of old American detective stories. “Stalag 17” is a strange combination of two elements that shouldn’t fit together, but which add up to a classic of American cinema. There is the comedy, ultimately made possible by American victory in WWII, and then there is the serious attempt to show that even in that POW camp, Americans remained American, with their particular virtues and vices.
The style of comedy hearkens back to screwball and slapstick. This might shock or bewilder audiences now, but it’s a gem. It is as lowbrow as it gets without profanity, which was not tolerated at the time, and rather crafty. Character actors, timing, and gags all rely on a long tradition of American movie-making now unfortunately lost. It also has a deep meaning to which I will get later.
A Story of Treachery and Heroism
It includes a dead-serious story of treachery in an American barracks. Among the 640 American airmen imprisoned in the POW camp in Austria after having been shot down, one is selling the others out to the Nazis. This brings up serious questions about justice and freedom, about moral conduct and intelligence. Even in the enslavement of the POW camp, with all the indignities and dangers, it is possible to be a hero or a villain, to do right by others or betray them. The human predicament, with all the modifications of this most unusual situation, unfolds.
Now, it’s hard to say why this movie touches greatness without giving away the game, and especially with mysteries we do not wish to have surprises ruined. I want you to go watch it, and I’m only writing to give you an opening into the wonderful world of Billy Wilder. So instead of taking you through the plot, I will talk about the problems the movie raises and what they are supposed to get the audience to think and talk about.
We are only introduced to the men of one of the barracks, including a couple of jokers whose antics remind us how lonely men get. They also show off Brooklyn wit, that comic defiance. They’re fools in a way that keeps them free.
One of the men, the care of the barracks, has been broken mentally, but is still able to accept the tenderness and protection of his fellow men. He takes to music. The story is set during Christmas 1944, so there are some carols, but the song that defines the picture is “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” It has a bit of the heroic touch and a longing for peace.
Social Conflict Over Authority
We know how the war ended, but there’s trouble before peace. The three men elected to run the barracks learn they have a spy in their midst. They lead the men into enmity again our protagonist because he has it so much better than they do and because he humiliates their claims to rule with the consent of the people—in short, he shows them up.
The twin principles of America, the justice of American equality and the freedom to do as one pleases so long as one does not harm others, come into conflict, and the possibility for tragedy arises rather too quickly for comfort. Funny as the story is, bracing as the heroism of the men is, they are far from perfect.
Different men deal with prison differently. Sefton has turned to satisfying the usual vices of men: booze, gambling, and ogling the woman side of the camp. He’s all about the pleasures of the body and does not have to moralize with anyone to get customers. He does it for a price, this humanist, and lives well off the proceeds! Is he not doing well by doing good, the very model of a capitalist entrepreneur?
He bribes the German guards to look the other way and spends his money on the foolish luxuries that are the only diversion in the camp. When life gives the POWs potato soup, they make a washbasin out of it. When life gives him potato shavings, he makes booze out of them. He does not respect the hierarchy of the prisoners: he reminds them, as soon as he arrives, his few possessions had been stolen, and where had all their professions of justice and brotherhood been then?
This man lives off his brains and has ideas about making a profit. He is a realist. He despises people who try to escape. They’re getting themselves killed and everyone worships them as heroes. For what? Even if they escape, they’d just be shipped back to war and end up in the same place, if not worse.
He stretches matters out of jealousy—they are, after all, admired and he is despised, if envied. When a new man is brought in who deserves the hero treatment he receives, our man has recourse to the basest class resentment. He consistently takes the low view of things. He has lots of stuff, but no class. Nobody likes him.
He dislikes them back. They’re suckers, for his business as much as for heroes. He does as all clever kids do, taking recourse to sarcasm. He cannot rule them because of their low opinion of him, but he wants to humiliate them for their stupid hopes. He will bring them down to his level.
He bets against their daring heroes, the last best hope of freedom, they think, and wins. Do they have recourse to more brains to improve their schemes? No, in their own resentment, they turn on him. He gets what he deserves: he treated them as fools and they live down to his expectations.
The Moral and Political Responsibilities of Freedom
You can see how this threatens to turn ugly. Now, this man is not exactly immoral—he’s certainly not hurting people. But he has presumed too much on the American freedom to live as one pleases. In attacking the rationality of their hopes, he has weakened their belief in the laws by which they tolerated him.
After all, he was free to prosper just like them, free not to give a damn just like they were free to hope, and they did business together freely. His brains and wealth were a nuisance, maybe, but not a humiliation. Then he went too far in showing that they need him and he despises their neediness.
Only when he realizes how humiliating it is that his fellow Americans think him a traitor does he realize to what extent his self-respect depended on their good opinion of him. They thought him clever, but now they think him contemptible, more so than their enemies and captors.
This crisis turns the apolitical opportunist, always looking for an advantage, into a detective, if for very selfish reasons. He is not more moral now than before, but he does not like to be played for a fool. He had been ostentatious to the point of stupidity. Now he knows that he has been set up by a real traitor and has to find him out and deal with him the right way. He has finally a common good with his fellow Americans.
You begin, at the same time, to see in him the twin weaknesses of the all-American POWs. They lack suspicion and are too gullible. They want to be competent, but at some level hold genius in contempt because it stoops low. To some extent, their defiance is a bluff—they do not have the brains to live up to their jokes and it is not clear they’d be as chatty were they as clever as they pretend to be.
They certainly do not understand indirection or subtlety. The contrast between the leadership faced with this terrible problem that undermines their authority and this man is the contrast between the moral virtues and the intellectual virtues. It is startling to see the failures of the community or its need of men who do not volunteer their services.
These men, equal in their status as prisoners, are also looking for another kind of equality, an equal trust without which their lives together would be rather hellish. The problem with trust is that it can be abused and cannot simply be withdrawn as a result. Life together is still necessary.
That makes for an unbearable situation that calls forth superior powers while relegating them to the status of a service. You see them acting well only once, when they’ve got a serious leader. These men know they’re not looking for a king, but they don’t quite know that they are looking for a hero. What they lack is a way to attach morally men of superior abilities. The plot resolution is good enough to stick, but it is hardly the kind of uplift you’d get in a Frank Capra movie.
William Holden, who had failed to win for “Sunset Blvd” three years previously, won an Oscar for playing our protagonist in “Stalag 17.” The movie was a great success. POWs were returning from Korea at the time. Americans wanted to believe the man had played a hero so they could love the movie better, and the Academy obliged them with its prestige. But this is not quite true to the story.
The Comedy That Inculates the American Character
We do not have such comedies anymore or anything that can replace them. The utterly lowbrow comedy starts with a democratic complaint: movies about war are all about the heroes. What happens to the POWs? Did not they fight and do their duty? Why don’t they get any attention?
Well, they do now—comedy makes men of different abilities equals in a certain way. It can cut through pretensions and bring to attention the facts of life, and democracy needs that. The equality of comedy means we can point out the foolishness of fools. Everything is contrived in a comedy precisely so there’s no need for pretense. Thus, it aims to bring together cleverness and morality in the way I’ve shown above—they are different things, but not enemies.
But the comedy also requires ignoring some of the facts of life, so the movie does not want to prove to you that the Nazis are evil. People are just supposed to know that. The impossibly hilarious, safe POW camp is a necessity of the story, to be able to show more of America than could be done in a realistic story. Realism would make such moral demands that comedy would become impossible.
There is something intrinsically questionable about the comedy. On the one hand, America did win the war in part to defend a country where people go to comedies and laugh! On the other, comedy lives under the suspicion that people want to evade the ugly facts of life so they can get an unrealistic happy ending.
The comedy, however, is realistic about Americans. You will recognize the national character in the types of people on screen without any individual American being mocked. That’s the advantage of fiction. The men do not come across as powerless or sainted, but as human beings in-between: free and variously successful in living up to their good intentions. They want and need a happy end; indeed, Americans did earn that happy end.
Perhaps Americans also need to be reminded of the problem of justice as this comedy raises it, but they might not want that as much. It’s certainly not a popular genre, although it is a serious service to America. No one can watch the story, see the plot unfold, and not get caught up in the moral drama. That’s an important contribution to the public memory of the war.
It’s ultimately impossible to have serious movies without falling into self-congratulation or self-loathing. The mix of seriousness and comedy fits America better and offers more of a chance to reflect on America without bitterness or despair. That’s something America badly needs now.