• Stalag 17



    Released by: Eureka Entertainment
    Released on: July 27, 2015
    Director: Billy Wilder
    Cast: William Holden, Otto Preminger, Don Taylor, Robert Strauss, Harvey Lembeck, Peter Graves, Sig Ruman, Neville Brand, Richard Erdman, Peter Baldwin, Michael Moore
    Year: 1953
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    The Movie:

    It's Christmastime 1944, and the American POWs confined in Barrack 4 of Germany's Stalag 17 are on edge. An attempted escape by Sergeants Manfredi (Michael Moore) and Johnson (Peter Baldwin) has ended in the shooting deaths of both soldiers, and it's obvious that someone is passing information to their German captors. Suspicion falls upon Sergeant J.J. Sefton (William Holden), a lone-wolf type who sells smuggled goods to his barrack mates with the blessing of good-natured guard Sergeant Johann Sebastian Schultz (Sig Ruman). As Sefton increasingly becomes persona non grata—to the point of being beaten and having his contraband taken by his fellow detainees—he works toward ferreting out and exposing the real informant.

    Krems—full name: “Krems an der Donau (Krems on the Danube)”—is a town of about 25,000 located 43 miles west of Vienna, Austria. Its thousand-year history centers mostly on winemaking, but in the mid-twentieth century it picked up a different sort of fame as the location of the infamous Nazi POW camp Stalag Luft 17-B. Here, during the latter part of World War II, more than 4,000 American airmen were crammed into barracks meant to house fewer than 250. Conditions at the stalag, as dismal and cramped as they were, were surprisingly organized. (Germany's semi-adherence to the 1929 Geneva Convention helped somewhat in this regard.) Each barrack had its own democratically elected leader, all of whom reported to a single, likewise-elected Man of Confidence (MOC) whose job it was to represent the prisoners' interests to stalag administrators. Not that this administrative efficiency had much practical benefit for the prisoners. Their living conditions remained poor throughout their stay, with their Red Cross packages "lost" far more often than they were delivered. Typical daily rations consisted of hot water, bread crusts of dubious origin, and thin potato soup (with the occasional fish head or other culinary castoff from the stalag's kitchen). A feverish amount of bartering is said to have gone on, with chocolate bars and cigarettes at the top of the list of coveted commodities.

    One bright spot amid all of this was that two of the stalag's residents—airmen Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski—took to writing and presenting plays and revues on a makeshift stage as a way to fight the tedium. Following the war, the two collaborated on a play entitled (strangely enough) Stalag 17. The work was a "comic melodrama" (their description) about the search for a Nazi spy among the detainees of a POW camp much like the one in which they'd waited out the war.

    Fast-forward to 1951. Stage and screen luminary José Ferrer, his career on a roll with Best Actor Oscar and Golden Globe wins (for his role in Michael Gordon's Cyrano De Bergerac the previous year) brought Bevan and Trzcinski's play to the Broadway stage. It ran for thirteen months and netted Ferrer a Tony Award.

    Next came the film version, the release of which wasn't always a sure thing. Or so maintained cast member Peter Graves, who claimed years afterward that Paramount Studios had shelved the film for over a year after its completion, reasoning that while war films made money, a film about POWs, set basically in a single location, most likely wouldn't. Then, as the Korean War wound down in June/July of 1953 and POWs were coming home to heroes' welcomes, the studio changed its mind.

    On July 1 of that year, the film met the public. The play's script had been extensively rewritten by its director, Billy Wilder (who had Double Indemnity, 1944, and Sunset Boulevard, 1950, under his belt by this time) and freelancer Edwin Blum (who later made a living writing episodes of 77 Sunset Strip, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and Hawaii Five-O, among others), and the result of the collaboration was brought to life by an outstanding cast: William Holden took home the Best Actor Oscar, while Robert Strauss snagged a Best Supporting Actor nomination for transplanting his portrayal of the comically oversexed Sergeant "Animal" Kuzawa from Broadway stage to silver screen.

    The film was both critically praised and financially successful. It remains fondly regarded today as perhaps the best of the WW II POW sub-genre that it pretty much spawned (see also: The Bridge Over the River Kwai, 1957, The Camp on Blood Island, and The Great Escape, 1963, and several dozen others). Its enjoyability today may depend to some degree on the level of appreciation that one has for broad, 50s-style humor—much of the film consists of a string of comedy vignettes that, however enjoyable they might be on their own terms, have little or no real connection to the main narrative. There's indeed a tight little spy drama to be found in this film, but it comprises at most 45 minutes of the 2-hours' worth of proceedings.

    That caveat aside, there's a lot to appreciate in Stalag 17. Wilder's direction justly earned him a Best Director Academy Award nomination (although he lost to Fred Zinnemann for From Here to Eternity, 1953). And, as mentioned above, the film's cast is uniformly top-notch. Director Otto Preminger is wonderful as Stalag commander Oberst von Scherbach, a man so by-the-book that he dresses in full uniform just to talk to his superiors on the telephone. Sig Ruman's Sergeant Schultz is likewise a hoot. ("The barracks should be schpic! And also schpan!" he commands while announcing a forthcoming inspection.) Also worthy of mention is Michael Lembeck who, like Robert Strauss, recreates his role from the Broadway production. As Sergeant Harry "Sugar Lips" Shapiro, he nearly starts something he can't finish when Strauss's Animal gets a load of him in really, really bad drag, drunkenly mistakes him for Betty Grable, and shifts into full-tilt horndog mode.

    The success of Stalag 17 may have been more grief for Wilder than it was worth. He ended up breaking his contract with Paramount when the studio insisted that he forego a substantial portion of his profits on the film to compensate for his previous flop, 1951's Ace in the Hole. Another, darker, story asserts that Paramount's distribution department pressured Wilder to change the film's Nazi spy to a Pole in order to increase the picture's marketability in Germany. Wilder, an Austrian-born Jew, was deeply offended by the idea and demanded an apology from Paramount executives. Upon receiving none, the story goes, he moved to Columbia. At any rate, Wilder had no professional association with Paramount after the release of 1954's Sabrina until that film's 1995 remake (with Sydney Pollack at the helm and starring Harrison Ford and Julia Ormond), on which he served as a "Consultant."

    In 1967, original Stalag 17 writers Bevan and Trzcinski sued Bing Crosby Productions and CBS over the successful sitcom Hogan's Heroes, claiming plagiarism. The similarities—particularly in the premiere episode in which a German spy is exposed among the POWs—loom large. Although a jury awarded the case to the plaintiffs, a federal judge overturned their verdict, citing a "striking difference in the dramatic mood of the two works." There may be more to come in this saga, however. Amid conflicting legal claims, wrangling, and hush-hush negotiations, a big screen adaptation of the series has allegedly been in the works since 2013.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    Eureka’s Masters of Cinema line has brought Stalag 17 to Blu-ray in the United Kingdom on a region-B encoded, 50GB disc containing a 1080p hi-def transfer framed at 1.35:1, only slightly off from the film’s original 1.37:1 ratio. The encoding is MPEG-4 AVC. The picture is gorgeous, from the same source utilized for Warner’s release in the United States. There’s healthy moderation between black and gray levels, with little crush. The grain field is nice and organic, and detail is super-sharp. There’s minor fluctuation in the image during one sequence in particular, but this appears to be inherent in the original elements used for the transfer. There’s virtually no dirt, debris, or other problems, resulting in an image that is gorgeous to behold.

    Eureka has encoded the original mono soundtrack in English LPCM 2.0. There’s a nice sense of depth and clarity. Slightly problematic is some hiss and the typical age-related defects associated with such tracks; clearly the sound wasn’t given the same attention to detail in the remastering process as the video, but it’s none the worse for wear, especially for viewers for whom a little wear makes for a more filmic experience. English language subtitles are included. There’s also a commentary track ported over from the original region one special-edition DVD release of the film. It features actors Richard Erdman and Gil Stratton, as well as playwright Donald Bevan, obviously sitting together as they watch the film. There are often long moments of silence during which the film’s track is raised, and the men reminiscence about their experiences; there are plenty of anecdotes thrown around, but people looking for a prepared, detailed immersion into the world of the film itself will want to check out the featurettes instead.

    Speaking of those featurettes, first up is “Stalag 17: From Reality to Screen,” which runs 22 minutes and contains interviews with a number of the film’s participants as well as a couple of film historians. Among those featured are William Holden’s biographer Bob Thomas, Billy Wilder’s biographer Ed Sikov, actors Erdman and Stratton, playwright Bevan, and writer/director Nicholas Meyer. “The Real Hereos of Stalag XVII B” is up next; running approximately 25 minutes, it proves the more interesting of the two with its focus on the real history behind the titular stalag. Former prisoners who were imprisoned in the camp are interviewed as well as playwright Bevan and Captain Dale A Dye, a military advisor for film and television. There’s also some terrific—and often harrowing—footage from the period. And finally, there’s “Neil Sinyard on Stalag 17” (24 minutes). A writer, critic, and professor of film studies for the University of Hull in the U.K., Sinyard proves his expertise with by detailing the film’s history and its reception in his native Great Britain.

    The Final Word:

    Stalag 17 is ultimately a mediocre movie, a great prison-spy thriller let down by often aimless (though occasionally funny) comedy routines. Performances are routinely excellent, however, and Wilder manages some striking sequences, most of them centered on the mystery of just who is reporting the prisoners’ escape attempts to camp officials. Eureka has provided the film with some nice extras, including a commentary recorded for a previous DVD release as well as three featurettes. There’s some anecdotal crossover between these extras, but that’s to be expected and is easy to forgive. Best of all, the transfer is top-notch and the sound good.

    Christopher D. Workman is a freelance writer and editor, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of Tome of Terror, a series of books dedicated to the horror genre on film. Volume 2, covering the 1930s, is currently available from Midnight Marquee Press, Inc.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!