Chuck (charlesofcamden) wrote,

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Heil Holden & Wilder

I spent quite a while yesterday visiting with FP, who is still moving pretty slowly following her surgery last week. While I was there, we popped the 1953 film Stalag 17 into the DVD player. In spite of my great affinity for the work of director Billy Wilder, I had somehow never seen this classic, though it has long been one of FP’s favorites. It bears some additional discussion.

Pictured here are Sig Ruman and William Holden. Ruman plays the role of Sergeant Schultz – yes, this movie was an obvious inspiration for Hogan’s Heroes. Holden plays the pivotal role of Sergeant Sefton. Holden won the Oscar for best actor for this portrayal, and the funny thing about it is that Holden tried desperately to get out of doing the film. He begged Wilder to make the character more sympathetic, but Wilder refused. Ultimately, Paramount forced Holden to take the role. His Oscar acceptance speech was at the time the shortest on record: “Thank you.”

The main plotline concerns a group of American POWs being held in Austria and their attempts to weed out an informer in their midst. This informer has tipped off the Germans about an escape attempt by two of the Americans. The result is that the two are caught in the act and mowed down with machine guns. Their bodies are laid out the following morning in the prison yard for all to see. So Hogan’s Heroes may have been inspired by this film, but the difference between Stalags 17 and 13 is much more than a simple math problem!

Stylistically, the movie has worn a little unevenly. The purely dramatic portions are still quite gripping, but there are extended comedic sequences and broadly comedic portrayals for a few supporting roles that would be more at home in a production of No Time for Sergeants or maybe, at a stretch, Mister Roberts.

But of course, the movie is a product of its time, so I don’t intend these remarks as actual criticism of Billy Wilder’s or anyone else’s work. Quite the contrary; I think that these stylistic touches are wonderful insights into the time that produced this film, as well as insights into the mind of Billy Wilder, for whom this must have been a very personal project – born in Austria of Jewish ancestry, Wilder was a journalist and screenwriter in Germany in the 1920s, but left for America when Hitler came to power. Wilder’s mother and grandmother were both killed in the Holocaust. It should be further noted that Wilder collaborated closely with Steven Spielberg on the screenplay for Schindler’s List. At one point, Wilder wanted to direct it himself, but he ultimately decided that he was too old for such a huge project and urged Spielberg to take the job. I guess you could say that worked out OK, though it leaves the lightly regarded Buddy Buddy as Wilder’s last directorial effort.

One supporting player to look for in Stalag 17 is Mr. Peter Graves(!) I’ve never been aware of seeing him in anything predating Mission Impossible, by which point he was sliding gracefully into middle age. But here, he’s a certifiably young man! Who knew? Another one who’s fun to see is director Otto Preminger in a rare acting turn as Col. von Scherbach, the camp Commandant.

I must also mention two fellows named Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, who play POWs. I doubt they had any lines and I don’t know what they looked like, but they are noteworthy because they are the two guys who wrote the play on which the movie was based. As a matter of fact, I went to last night and ordered myself a copy of the play script. I’m really interested to see what changes were made by Wilder in translating the play into a movie. It would not surprise me to learn that the play was set entirely within the POW barracks, whereas the movie takes us into the Commandant’s office and into water tanks and underground tunnels. Also, there are a few sight gags in the film that to my eye seem to have Wilder’s name all over them, so I’ll be interested to see whether they’re in the play.

If I’ve inspired anyone to look for Stalag 17, or any of Billy Wilder’s other films, that would make me happy. Oh, there is one other thing – I ran this photo a while back, but this as good a time as any to show off one of my prized possessions – an autographed photo of the late great Mr. Wilder with a personal salutation to yours truly!

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