(director/writer: Billy Wilder; screenwriters: from the play by Donald Bevan & Edmund Trzcinski/Edwin Blum; cinematographer: Ernest Laszlo; editor: George Tomasini; music: Franz Waxman; cast: William Holden (Sgt. J. J. Sefton), Otto Preminger (Col. Oberst von Scherbach), Don Taylor (Lt. James Dunbar), Harvey Lembeck (Sgt. Harry Shapiro), Robert Strauss (Sgt. “Animal” Stosh), Robinson Stone (Joey), Richard Erdman (Sgt. “Hoffy” Hoffman), Peter Graves (Sgt. Price), Sig Ruman (Sgt. Schulz, prison guard), Neville Brand (Duke), Gil Stratton Jr. (Cookie, the narrator); Runtime: 120; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Billy Wilder; Paramount; 1953)

“The prison story had an offbeat flavor that was pleasing.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Working with co-writer Edwin Blum, director Billy Wilder (“Sunset Boulevard”/”Double Indemnity”/”Ace in the Hole”/”Some Like It Hot”) rewrote a large part of the hit Broadway play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski and though keeping it faithful brought his brand of a cynical black tone to the table making it more than a breezy WW II German POW comedy. In fact, it’s the comedy that became dated and the added melodrama that still retains its freshness and potency. But the unnatural mix doesn’t hold up entirely and the film loses some of its power in the bargain, yet surprisingly remains suspenseful despite the clash between the slapstick antics of the Germans and the satirical glum take on the reality of their situation faced by the American prisoners. It stars an all-male ensemble cast, given to macho pronouncements and a ribald frat-boy humor along with a gallows humor.

It features a German war camp, Stalag 17, somewhere near the Danube River containing 40,000 detainees from many countries and among them are 630 American airmen, mostly sergeants, kept in one compound. It’s a week before Christmas, 1944, and two men from Barracks 4 attempt to escape through a trap door and make their way to freedom via a tunnel they dug. Cynical Sgt. J. J. Sefton (William Holden) bets the remaining prisoners two packs of cigarettes that the escape will fail. We soon see the two escapees shot by Germans waiting at the tunnel’s end.

The next morning’s roll call has the German sadistic commandant, Oberst von Scherbach (Otto Preminger), displaying the corpses and smugly going on about no one ever escaping from the camp. One of the scruffy prisoners, Duke (Neville Brand), believes there’s a stoolie among them in Barracks 4, which causes tension among the men as they ponder who it is. The prisoner’s all-American, “regular guy,” blue-eyed security chief, Sgt. Price (Peter Graves), thinks along with most of the men that Sefton did it. The cigar smoking enterprising wise guy has incurred the envy of the men by his sly capitalist dealings with both the prisoners and the guards as the smooth operator, looking out only for No. 1, who runs a distillery and a rat racetrack where he’s able to get hold of his fellow prisoner’s Red Cross packages and live as comfortably as possible in these bleak settings. After receiving a severe beating as a suspect, Sefton stumbles upon how the stoolie passes info to the guard by signaling him by tying a large loop in the cord holding the light bulb over the barrack’s chess board.

Added to the mix are the broad comedy antics of Harvey Lembeck as a Jewish quipster and Robert Strauss as his women crazy oafish pal; Richard Erdman as the questioning chief of the barracks and the prisoner’s spokesman; Don Taylor as the new arrival heroic rich boy officer who blew up a German ammunition train and is waiting transfer to another camp where he will be tortured again as he was by the commandant; Robinson Stone as the shellshocked mute, who never says a word but plays a sad tune on his piccolo (he was thought to be a symbolic figure representing Wilder’s homage to his Jewish family wiped out during the Holocaust); and Sig Ruman as the buffoonish guard who is the contact man for the spy whom the clever Holden discovers. The prisoner’s low opinion of Holden changes when he saves the day for the men who went fascist on him just a short time ago (perhaps a reminder of how HUAC operates) and aim to have Taylor be the first to escape the joint.

What worked very well was that Wilder brought the claustrophobic set to life by opening up the stage play with his more airy sets and use of much camera movement, Holden’s Oscar winning performance gave the film a needed edge, it realistically painted a picture of the prisoners as not just saintly beings but as bored and deprived men subject to fits of frustration, and the prison story had an offbeat flavor that was pleasing. It was narrated by Cookie (Gil Stratton Jr.), one of the surviving prisoners who was Sefton’s sidekick.