The Great Escapade
I grew up watching "The Great Escape" and whilst I appreciate it may not be the greatest prisoner of war drama made for a long time I felt it was the most entertaining. I am now torn because having recently watched Billy Wilder's "Stalag 17" I find myself with a rival to one of my favourite movies which not only manages to deliver a wonderful prisoner of war drama but also plenty of humour. In fact it is that mix, a drama about stoolie which keeps us guessing combined with fun characters and brilliantly witty lines and scenes which makes "Stalag 17" so entertaining and memorable and surprisingly never about the actors.
With a couple of weeks to go before Christmas, prisoners Manfredi and Johnson plan to escape Stalag 17 only to discover the Germans waiting for them on the other side of the fence as if they knew they were coming. Suspecting that there is a stoolie in their midst everyone suspects Sgt. J.J. Sefton (William Holden - When Time Ran Out...) who openly admits to be happy to bide out his time as comfortably as he can even if that means trading with the Germans. When things turn nasty as the men tire of having their escapes ruined and secret stashes of equipment confiscated Sefton finds himself on the end of a beating and having to find out who is the stoolie to clear him from suspicion.
The reason "Stalag 17" is such a great movie is that it manages to firstly deliver this thrilling storyline about a traitor, it then brings in elements of prisoner of war movies, such as tunnels and the clever way they hide equipment before drenching it in witty lines and amusing characters. All these things combine to make for a memorable, entertaining movie but also each of these elements are strong enough to work individually.
Take the storyline of the stoolie with Sefton finding himself accused of being a traitor because he is happy to grease the palm of the German soldiers and officers to get certain things. It's entertaining because slowly the picture becomes clear; how the stoolie passes messages to the German's and what signals are used. But it is even more entertaining when we discover who the stoolie is and how Sefton sets about blowing their cover. It is tightly written so every part of it makes sense but at the same time it doesn't dominate the movie, allowing for the other elements to have their time.
Talking of which we have what I call the imaginative side of prisoner of war movies as we discover how the prisoners pass things between huts and hide things. The first time we see the water bucket with a clever dish of water in it you simply have to smile at something so simple yet so effective. And it is the same when ever we discover how things operate especially with how they pass information between huts, something I will let you discover for yourself.
Now all of this prisoner ingenuity is often tinged with humour and the humour is a huge part of "Stalag 17". From Sefton's various scams such as betting on mice to having the men pay to use his telescope pointed at a prison with women prisoners is simply amusing. But so are the characters from Betty Grable obsessed Animal to his chirpy friend Harry who share some wonderful banter. The writing of the humour is so sharp and so jam packed that there are so many laugh out loud moments especially concerning the camp Commander Oberst von Scherbach and his boots.
What is surprising is that "Stalag 17" is not short on star power William Holden, Otto Preminger, Peter Graves and Robert Strauss are just a few of the recognizable faces. And all the cast deliver first class performances especially the double act of Robert Strauss and Harvey Lembeck as Animal and Harry. But none of them steal the movie, it is a collective of good performances and great characters which makes it so good which makes me smile seeing that William Holden was singled out and ended up winning an Oscar for his performance.
The thing is that "Stalag 17" is entertaining by having this clever storyline and a lot of humour but at the same time it is still respectful of war. Scenes where people die are not dealt with lightly and beneath all the humour you also get the camaraderie of the men as a collective force against their German keepers. To achieve that yet still have us laugh because of a pair of silly trousers or an impersonation of Hitler is clever film making.
What this all boils down to is that "Stalag 17" is right up there with the best of the prisoner of war movies but because it delivers not only drama but also plenty of fun. If you have never watched it and been put off because it is an old black & white movie I urge you to buy & watch it especially if you enjoy prisoner of war movies.