Films set in prisoner-of-war camps must contend with the specter of this prison-film subgenre’s masterpiece, Jean Renoir’s La grande illusion (1937), set in a German camp during the First World War. Indeed, Renoir himself discovered this with his later, excellent The Elusive Corporal (1962), which is set in a German prison camp during the Second World War. Of course, there’s a range of quality to these subsequent films: whereas John Sturges’s The Great Escape (1963) is inflated, audience-baiting trash, Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17, from a decade earlier, is not without interest. Much of that interest involves a subtext that refers to McCarthyism and the mob mentality it exploited.
In 1944, in Barracks 4 of a POW camp, Stalag 17, black marketeer J.J. Sefton is suspected of spying for their German captors when two Americans are almost instantly killed upon their attempted escape. One of their rank indeed helps whip up the frenzy of suspicion against Sefton, attracting our own suspicion, although the betrayer turns out to be someone else. Assisted by Ernest Laszlo’s grim black-and-white cinematography, Wilder’s comedy-drama—the inspiration for TV’s Hogan’s Heroes, which turned everything to farce—evokes the political atmosphere of the U.S. during Senator Joe McCarthy’s reign.
William Holden, who won the best actor Oscar for playing Sefton, keeps the film from becoming a nasty, sentimental boys’ adventure. Even after Sefton is beaten up by his fellow prisoners, Holden keeps the potential for creepy self-pity at bay. It also helps that the play-derived plot has Sefton coming out of his self-centered shell to become a “team player.” In truth, this is not one of Holden’s great performances; but isn’t it wonderful that such a good actor as he won an Oscar for something?—and work he needn’t have been ashamed of.
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