Although it clearly inspired the television series, “Stalag 17” differs greatly from “Hogan’s Heroes.”
That might be bad news for fans of the long-running 1960s TV comedy, but good news for those who prefer a harder-edged, better-made portrayal of life in a World War II prison camp.
In contrast to the broad antics of Col. Hogan and his cohorts, “Stalag 17” could be described as a comedy with serious overtones — or perhaps a drama with comic overtones. Despite the differences in time and place, it actually has more in common with “M*A*S*H*,” a film in which humor is used as ballast against the atrocities of war.
“Stalag 17” will be shown Saturday and Sunday in Hoquiam, as part of the 7th Street Theatre’s Silver Screen Classics series.
The 1953 comedy-drama ranks as one of co-writer-director Billy Wilder’s more remarkable accomplishments, in turning an undistinguished Broadway play into a hit movie.
It also features an Academy Award-winning performance from William Holden. That was also remarkable, since Holden was no better than third choice for the lead role, didn’t want it when it was first offered and fought his characterization at every turn.
As with “Hogan’s Heroes,” the film takes place entirely within a World War II prison camp in Germany.
In the opening scenes, two American prisoners of war are killed in an escape attempt. That isn’t the first time a breakout has been brutally squelched under circumstances that indicate someone within the barracks has been tipping off the authorities.
While there is no shortage of potential informers, most of the suspicion has fallen on Sgt. J.J. Sefton (played by Holden) — a cynical double-dealer whose skill in negotiating for creature comforts that most of the prisoners lack has prompted speculation that he might be dealing more than cigarettes to the Nazis.
Hostility to Sefton within the barracks increases when the Germans discover that POW Lt. Dunbar (Don Taylor) has sabotaged a a German munitions train. But Sefton has his own ideas on the identity of the informer — and how to engineer Dunbar’s escape.
This sounds like pretty serious stuff. But Wilder injects a surprising amount of humor — most of it supplied by the slobbish “Animal” Kuzava (Robert Strauss) and his wisecracking buddy Harry Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) — into the proceedings. He never loses sight of the main theme, however, and the scenes in which Sefton unmasks the informer are very well staged.
Nitpickers admittedly can take issue with the credibility of the climax. Since they’ve already assaulted Sefton as a suspected informer, it seems unlikely that the POWs would instantly accept his interpretation of past betrayals.
Kirk Douglas wrote in his autobiography that he rejected the role of Sefton because he didn’t like the play (“I didn’t realize what Billy would do with the movie…I was dumb,” he explained). When second-choice Charlton Heston bowed out due to conflicting commitments, Wilder turned to Holden, the star of his “Sunset Boulevard” three years earlier.
Holden was even less impressed with the play than Douglas, walking out before its conclusion. But he agreed to do the film when Wilder promised to beef up his part.
Even so, he begged the director to make his character more sympathetic. Wilder, however, was adamant that Sefton must be convincing as an outsider. While Douglas probably would have been fine (it is hard to imagine the straight-arrow Heston doing justice to the role), Holden was truly superb in capturing all facets of his character’s personality.
He was surrounded by one of cinema’s all-time diverse supporting casts. Lembeck and the Oscar-nominated Strauss were comic actors recreating their Broadway roles. A young Peter Graves, playing the barracks’ security chief, later gained greater fame as the star of television’s “Mission Impossible.”
Gil Stratton, who played the narrator and Sefton’s only friend in the compound, became a prominent Los Angeles sportscaster. And Otto Preminger, as the camp commandant, was far better known as a director. Preminger was infamous for his tyrannical directorial style and some observers joked that his ruthless, murderous character in this film represented a kinder, gentler version of himself.
Perhaps the biggest difference between “Stalag 17” and Hogan’s Heroes” might have been in their portrayal of the enemy. In the TV series, both the commandant and Sgt. Schultz were ineffectual buffoons. The Austrian-born Wilder, who fled Germany when Hitler came to power, wasn’t about to be as charitable toward the Nazis. There’s a Sgt. Schultz (played by veteran character actor Sig Ruman) in the movie as well, but this one hides a gift for treachery behind an avuncular facade.
Television’s Schultz was a realistic if thick-headed sort. If pressed, I’m guessing he would say those who consider “Hogan’s Heroes” superior to “Stalag 17” know noth-ing.