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Category:    Home > Reviews > Drama > World War II > Stalag 17 - Special Collector's Edition (Paramount DVD)

Stalag 17 – Special Collector’s Edition


Picture: B     Sound: B-     Extras: B+     Program: A+



Trying to imagine a film like Stalag 17 getting made today is near impossible.  In the 21st century environment of political correctness above all things, a film about the perils -- and hilarity -- of being an American POW held by the Nazis during World War II would never get made.


I guess that makes Billy Wilder's epic, classic black comedy about a group of airmen in a German POW camp remake-proof.  And thank God for that, because Wilder's film is nearly flawless.


The film centers on Sefton (William Holden, in a role that won him the Best Actor Oscar), a somewhat disreputable American POW that trades with his captors for luxurious items -- like eggs -- and takes and places bets during escape attempts by his fellow prisoners -- usually against the men making it past the prison fences alive.  Of course, this rubs his campmates the wrong way, especially when they discover that a rat's in the building tipping the Germans off to escapes, when there's a radio in the barracks, and other such vital information to the Americans.


The film concerns itself with the discovery of who the snitch is, but along the way the drama is broken up by periods of comedic hijinks, usually created by Harry Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) and his oafish pal, Animal (Robert Strauss).  These moments range from trying to infiltrate the female Russian barracks to Harry putting straw under his hat during a Christmas dance to coax Animal out of a funk induced by his desire to possess Betty Grable.  But what they have in common is, like M*A*S*H, Stalag 17 becomes a bit episodic in its asides from the main plot.  So while the movie may not have directly inspired Hogan's Heroes, you'd be hard-pressed to watch this film and not see more than one narrative and stylistic connection between the film and television show.


What ultimately makes Stalag 17 a classic is Wilder's ability to blend drama and comedy so seamlessly.  This comes as no surprise to film fans; all of Wilder's great works are examples of brilliant genre bending and crossing.  Wilder's direction and writing is precise and calculated, keeping you off balance throughout the film in a way few directors have ever been able to accomplish.  The performances, too, from Holden, Lembeck, and Strauss to Peter Graves in an early role, are all convincing and realistic thanks, in part, to Wilder's coaxing and adherence to the story he wanted to tell.


Top to bottom, Stalag 17 is a great film.  It perhaps gets unfairly neglected when considering Wilder's work -- after all, this is the man responsible for Some Like it Hot, Sunset Blvd., The Apartment, and Sabrina.  But it's place on the second-tier of Wilder's filmography, at least in terms of the public's recognition of Billy Wilder and his films, shouldn't deter you from picking up Paramount's recent re-release of the film on DVD.


This new edition is a slight improvement over the previous digital incarnation of the film in terms of video and sound.  Visually, the anamorphically enhanced 1.85 X 1 black-and-white photography looks great with only slight imperfections here and there.  It doesn't boast the same amazing quality of Paramount's Sunset Blvd. disc, an all-digital restoration that is still secondary to having the original camera negative, but it does look beautiful all the same.  And on the audio side, the Dolby Digital 2.0 mix is strong and textured.  It won't blow out your speakers, but then again this isn't a speaker-destroying war movie.  It's a dialogue-heavy character-driven piece, so the experience of watching the film is in no way deterred by the lack of a fuller audio mix on the disc.


Extras-wise, there's an interesting complement to be found here.  The "Stalag 17: From Reality to Screen" featurette runs nearly 30 minutes and features voices and insights from actors from the film, including two leads, Richard Erdman and Gil Stratton, as well as Donald Beven, one of the playwrights who created the play the film is based on and Billy Wilder biographers.  It's one of the better, more insightful such features, and it certainly whets your appetite for the commentary track with Erdman, Stratton, and Beven.


The other featurette, also running nearly 30 minutes, is "The Real Heroes of Stalag XVIIB."  What's nice about this mini-documentary is that someone realized that the voices and stories of those American POWs who went through the Nazi stalags were things worth preserving.  The events and places in Stalag 17 aren't similar to other war movies in that it's not a film about D-Day or the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima.  Just as in 1953 when there weren't films about prisoner-of-war camps and the Americans in them and such stories were falling by the wayside, today those same stories get set aside to make room for more Pearl Harbor tales.  "The Real Heroes of Stalag XVIIB" sheds some much needed light on the real-life experience of American POWs in World War II and, if it were a little longer, this featurette would have made this disc worth buying on its own.


But, as it is, this disc is worth buying for one reason alone: Stalag 17 is one fine film.  Whether you're a cineaste or simply a moviegoer, there's a lot to like in the film. More importantly, it's one that never gets stale.  And it deserves a place in your collection.



-   Dante A. Ciampaglia


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