Two men sneak underneath the small barracks of a concentration camp, shadowed in darkness and covered in mud. While they wallow in the grime, above them their comrades are doing the unthinkable, betting on their odds to escape. The bet is instigated by Sgt. J.J. Sefton (William Holden), the entrepreneur of the POWs and everyone else, out of spite, bet against his claim that the two men won’t make it out alive.
This opening sequence, albeit grim, epitomizes the core problem of Stalag 17: it is caught up in an odd disconnect between the harshness of war and the goofiness of the characters that inhabit Stalag 17. This is not to say that a balance couldn’t have been found. The TV show Hogan’s Heroes took the same concept and made it work and Wilder has shown he can find a balance between funny and sad with The Apartment.
The problem is that Stalag 17 deals in extremes, binaries and utter opposites. Either the film must be serious, or it must be funny. Animal (Robert Strauss) and Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) run about like Abbot and Costello, making cracks and buffoonish make their way through the harshness of the world around them, the emergence of a rat in the barracks becomes clear and the men begin bearing down on Sefton, the obvious suspect, who makes it his mission to clear his name.
The grimness of Sefton’s cynical, narcissistic tale is played against the sex jokes of Animal and Shapiro. Yes, even amid a male concentration camp, Wilder finds a way to make the humor all about sex. For some inexplicable reasons, a camp full of Russian females is right next to Stalag 17 and the two make plans to get over to the ladies. When Animal can’t have those dreams, he fantasizes about Betty Grable.
This all culminates in what has to be one of the most miscalculated and poorly implemented scenes Wilder has ever created. Animal fantasizes that Shapiro is Grable, dances with him, comes on strong, only to have his dreams crushed when Shapiro slaps him out of the booze induced fantasy. What initially is supposed to be a funny gag tries to then become a heartbreaking moment but it’s handled in such a cringe-worthy manner that it becomes instantly unwatchable.
These gags are constantly undercutting what could be a serious and dramatic story. In a lot of ways, that story is still gripping and has a lot of great twist and turns, it just doesn’t fit with the constant gags thrown in. It’s hard to get into the heavy and dark dramatics when the film tires to be a live action Loony Tunes cartoon as well. There’s a dark, gritty war film that gets utterly whitewashed and cleaned up with all the goofiness, absolutely destroying so much of what the film is striving for.
It’s all the more infuriating when the more serious portions of the film are steeped in fantastic visuals. There’s a great film noir look to the visuals and some of the storytelling is expressed through images and associations. It’s not on the visual level of Double Indemnity or Sunset Blvd., but it helps elevate the story to another level.
There’s a good film here, but it is rendered unwatchable by the consistently unfunny and disparate comedy. Humor is all well and good, but as a competing force with the serious nature of the film’s story, it’s grating white noise that absolutely washes out so much of what would have made this film compelling to watch. Instead, it’s another easily consumable, docile film for the masses that lacks the heaviness and gravitas needed to make Stalag 17 a great film.
© 2010 James Blake Ewing