Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Doing Time in Stalag 17
This post is in conjunction with the LAMB event - LAMBs in the Director's Chair.
Stalag 17 is a stand out film in Billy Wilder's career. It has all the hallmarks of a Wilder film, including voice over narration, double crosses and men in drag. But, it also marked an important turning point in his career. After making a few comedies and excelling at dramas and noir like, Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd. and The Lost Weekend, Stalag was a war drama unlike any other. Taking place in a prisoner of war camp in World War II, a group of American sergeants try to discover the German spy in their midst that giving information to their captors. Like many Wilder films, it was based on a play, yet production started without a completed script. This added to the realism for the actors who themselves were unsure of which one of them would turn out to be the rat. Furthermore, Wilder infused the film with overtly sexual humor and clashed with the studio over the tone of the subject matter. It led to the dissolution of his working relationship with Paramount. As was his style, his belied his drama with a sublime humor that would be far more evident in later films such as Oscar winning movie, The Apartment. In addition, the studio angered him by withholding part of the film's profits and suggesting that Wilder change the nationality of the camp guards from German to Polish. It is widely believed that Wilder took carte blanche with the film because of the fact that his mother died in a concentration camp. That fact makes it more remarkable to me that he would choose to make a dark comedy about a film that show closely mirrored a tragedy in his own life. But, that was what made Wilder's movies special. He could take stories about betrayal, murder or lust and make them relatable, show us characters we could identify with and ultimately a movie that audiences would enjoy.
Not to take anything away from Wilder, but for me, the film is all about William Holden. In fact, it's a stroke of casting genius on Wilder's part for the studio wanted Charlton Heston in the role. But, Wilder saw the character of Sergeant J.J. Sefton as far more cynical and anti-heroic than he thought Heston or second choice Kirk Douglas could play. He instead chose Bill Holden, whom he made four films with, more than any other actor beside Jack Lemmon. Forced into the role by the studio, Holden, like the character, was stuck in a situation he could not escape, but he makes the best of it the only way he can. Sefton finally escaped, while Holden won an Oscar. He was an actor who simply seemed to be himself on screen, cool and intelligent. Who else could romance Audrey Hepburn while beefing with Humphrey Bogart? He won an Oscar, worked for wildlife conservation, brought Japanese films to America, fought against the blacklist and served in the Army during WWII. Bill Holden was just cool, man. In Stalag, he defies everyone's objections by trading with the Germans for luxury sundry items as well as conjugal visits with female Russian workers. As the other prisoners grow to resent him and become suspicious of his activities, he digs in his heels and is determined to find the spy himself. Finally, Holden leaves the camp with a line that I wish for anything in the world to be able to go back in time and tell some of the guys I served with as I left my duty station for the last time.
"If I ever run into any of you bums on a street corner, just let's pretend we've never met before."