Stalag 17, 1953.
Directed by Billy Wilder.
Starring William Holden, Don Taylor, Otto Preminger, Robert Strauss, Harvey Lembeck, Peter Graves, Sig Ruman, Richard Erdman, and Gil Stratton.
Billy Wilder’s minor classic Stalag 17, which earned three Oscar nominations and one win, arrives again on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber Studio Classics, which commissioned a new restoration of the movie along with a pair of fresh commentary tracks to complement the preexisting one. A pair of older featurettes are included too.
I’m not sure what people thought about Stalag 17 when it was released in 1953, but in retrospect, mixing comedy and drama in a film about World War II POWs seems like a risky endeavor.
In the hands of a lesser director, the end result might have been a mish-mash of conflicting styles, but under the steady guide of Billy Wilder, it works. The two-hour film focuses on a group of POWs in a German camp known as Stalag 17.
As the story opens, two of the POWs are shot while attempting to escape. The Germans seemed to know about the plans ahead of time, and the men in Barracks 4 begin to suspect an informant is among them.
The chief target of their suspicion is J.J. Sefton (William Holden), who keeps a secure storage locker full of prizes that he uses to barter with the guards for more preferential treatment and other things that are luxuries in a harsh, bare-bones environment.
Sefton professes his innocence and even says they should watch him more closely, if they think he’s up to no good. Meanwhile, the other POWs do their best to alleviate their suffering any way they can, led by one known as “Animal,” who’s not afraid to irritate the German guards with his antics.
Animal is the source of many of Stalag 17’s funniest moments, but he never feels like he’s in a different movie when the tone switches to something serious, such as the arrival of two new POWs, one of whom is suspected of bombing a German train. When the informant in their midst provides evidence of the new man’s culpability, the others rally to save him from being sent to SS headquarters in Berlin while also trying to find the snitch.
Kino Lorber Studio Classics is celebrating the film’s 70th anniversary with Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD editions that use a new 4K restoration. I was sent a Blu-ray for review and can say Stalag 17 looks excellent, so if you haven’t upgraded to 4K yet, this disc is still a worthy purchase.
KLSC also commissioned a pair of new commentary tracks, in addition to porting over the bonus features found in previous editions, which consist of another commentary track and two featurettes.
The pre-existing commentary track features actors Richard Erdman (Barracks 4 leader “Hoffy”) and Gil Stratton (Sefton’s toady and the movie’s narrator, known as “Cookie”) along with Donald Bevan, who co-wrote the play on which the movie was based and who really was in a German Stalag during World War II.
Bevan relates some memories from the war and Erdman and Stratton do their best to discuss their experiences while filming Stalag 17, but their frequent lapses into silence show how tough it is to get first-hand views in commentary tracks for older films. (And, of course, what was tough to do 20+ years ago, during DVD’s early days, is pretty much impossible now.)
As a result of that, the other commentaries take the “film class” on a disc approach. One features filmmaker and historian Steve Mitchell as well as author Steven Jay Rubin, while the other has film historian and Billy Wilder biographer Joseph McBride offering his thoughts. As you might imagine, the former focuses on the movie itself while the latter targets its place in Wilder’s career; both are worthwhile listens.
The featurettes are Stalag 17: From Reality to Screen, which runs 22 minutes and gives a rundown of the making of the movie, and The Real Heroes of Stalag XVII B, which runs nearly 25 minutes and examines the stories of real World War II POWs, including Bevan.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★