Starring: Willam Holden, Don Taylor, Otto Preminger
Director: Billy Wilder
Running Time: 120 mins
Stalag 17 is an American film about a soldier being held in a POW camp who is suspected of being an informant after the death of two fellow prisoners.
The great thing about this film is how original it is in turning a genre and setting often used for big, patriotic war films (i.e. The Great Escape) into a both an entertaining comedy and intriguing mystery, which makes for an engaging and enjoyable watch throughout, even if the film does sacrifice some of its potentially more engrossing elements for its unique comedic vibes.
I think it’s best, however, to start off by emphasising just how different this is to the typical POW film. At first, you expect the film to have that same, patriotic atmosphere of a classic war film, and although the opening act largely follows that formula, there’s just something that feels a little bit different throughout the whole movie, and it’s not all that easy to put your finger on it at first.
Of course, coming from a director like Billy Wilder, who is as skilled as any in creating classic comedies (The Seven Year Itch, The Apartment, Some Like It Hot and more), a humorous vibe isn’t all that out of the blue in truth, and although it can be a little disconcerting at first, the humour that Wilder brings to the film not only lends it all a unique atmosphere, but also gives the central characters a different and more engaging dynamic to some of the blander hero-types you get in the more generic movies.
Now, while the film does have good comedy throughout, I don’t want to suggest that this is an out-and-out comedy. There are some good laughs here and there, but it’s not only there to make you laugh, as its main story is one of an engrossing mystery trying to figure out just why the POWs seem unable to get their own way with anything, suspecting an informant among their own ranks.
Again, Billy Wilder has helmed some brilliant mysteries over time (Sunset Boulevard, Witness For The Prosecution etc.), and Stalag 17 features the same sort of intrigue and suspense throughout, making for an intriguing watch that again distances the film from what you would expect at first, as the main plot doesn’t really have anything to do with the war, but rather the mystery and tensions that arise within the barracks.
As a result, the film is an entertaining watch because of both the comedy and the well-written mystery, which will easily keep you engaged from start to finish. However, if there were to be one complaint that I have with this film, it would be that, what with all these different genres coming together in an unlikely setting, it does feel a little disjointed and hard to really grasp at times.
Individually, the comedy is great, and the mystery is engrossing, but as a whole package over the course of two full hours, things aren’t quite as smooth, as the film focuses on those different genres to different degrees at different times. The comedy is much stronger in the middle portion, while the mystery really comes to a head in the final act, and while it’s all still good stuff, it just doesn’t come together in an entirely coherent way, which can be a little jarring as you have to readjust your brain and the way you’re watching at times.
Overall, however, I liked Stalag 17 a lot. It’s a unique take on the POW story that combines impressive comedy and engrossing mystery, and although it isn’t a completely perfect marrying of an unlikely genre combination, it’s still engaging throughout, and that’s why I’m giving it a 7.6.