Magazine On Cinema

A hellhole Noël

Stalag 17 followed by Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is an ideal festive double-bill

This article is taken from the December/January 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Britain hasn’t produced many great Christmas movies. Something about the collision of untainted hope and unbridled capitalism strikes more chords in the American soul. They stole A Christmas Carol from us and gave it to the Muppets, then tackled the holiday from every angle: the criminal in Bad Santa, the charming in Elf, the violent in Die Hard and all three in Home Alone. All we can offer is Love Actually, which I can never face, and
Arthur Christmas.

The film I associated with Christmas in my childhood had nothing seasonal about it at all. But The Great Escape was shown more or less every Boxing Day during the 1980s, and I was never allowed to watch it. This wasn’t for religious reasons, unless you count my grandparents’ belief that the television shouldn’t be turned on during daylight hours.

If that makes it sound bleak, it’s not. There’s a deft mix of light and dark, often right next to each other

Each year on the day after Christmas, we children would be taken on a hearty walk in some windswept bit of the
Yorkshire Dales, to build our characters. The possibility that character would be better built by learning how to distribute the soil from three tunnels around a prison camp was not considered.

These days I mark the holiday by watching a different prisoner of war movie. Stalag 17 is all about Christmas, but it’s the opposite of saccharine. This camp, it’s made clear, isn’t on Santa’s visiting list. The movie is cynical from the first line, which has the narrator explaining that he’s sick of films about war heroics. “There never was a movie about PoWs,” he complains, which was pretty much true in 1953, when it came out. If it wouldn’t be true for much longer, that was partly because of Stalag 17’s success.

The films that followed would make POW camps feel like an extension of boarding school, with cheeky prisoners making elaborate plots to fool the guards, but Stalag 17 conveys the misery of being crammed into a freezing hut with dozens of other unwashed men for years on end. The focus is less on escape than on how you keep your humanity in such a place.

If that makes it sound bleak, it’s not. There’s a deft mix of light and dark, often right next to each other. Otto Preminger plays the camp commandant, who pulls on his cavalry boots to make a call to Berlin even as he interrogates a sleep-deprived airman. The dialogue is sharp. “How do you expect to win the war with an army of clowns?” asks a guard. “We sort of hope you’ll laugh yourselves to death,” comes the reply.

Billy Wilder adapted the film from a play written by two former PoWs, and cast William Holden, his star from Sunset Boulevard, as the lead. The lead, but not the hero: Sefton is very far from a hero.

He’s angry, resentful that he didn’t make it through officer selection, while better-connected men did, stung by the selfishness he encountered in his early days as a PoW and angry that his war isn’t working out the way he planned. Though Holden, who won an Oscar for the role, reportedly begged Wilder to soften his character, he remains resolutely unlikeable almost to the end.

The focus is less on escape than on how you keep your humanity in such a place

Like James Garner in The Great Escape, Sefton is a scrounger, trading with the prison guards for privileges. But where Garner was a goodie, bribing and blackmailing the enemy, the men whose weakness Sefton targets are his fellow Americans, running a distillery and a mouse racetrack — services the other PoWs want, but which they resent Sefton for exploiting.

In the first scene, he bets an escape attempt will fail, profiting from the deaths of two other airmen. Everyone hates him for it, and he affects not to care. “Th is is everybody for himself,” he growls.

It’s this cynicism that makes Stalag 17 an ideal double-bill with Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Where George Bailey, played by a sunny James Stewart, is always looking to help others, his presence making the town of Bedford Falls a better place, Sefton would not have been missed if he’d jumped in a river. Most of his comrades would cheerfully have pushed him.

Stalag 17, poster, US poster art, William Holden, 1953. (Photo by LMPC via Getty Images)

As the film opens, it’s Christmas 1944, cold, muddy and miserable. Listening to the BBC from the outside world on an illicit radio set, the men can hear news of the Allies being pushed back in the Battle of the Bulge. The failed breakout adds to their sense of hopelessness, and the suspicion grows that someone in their barracks is giving information to the Germans. It’s not hard to believe it might be Sefton, a man who would take bets on “his own mother getting hit by a truck”.

It’s a Wonderful Life has a fundamentally optimistic take on humanity, with Stewart’s neighbours rallying round to help him. “No man is a failure who has friends,” he is told. But in Stalag 17 Sefton has no friends, and Wilder’s view of his fellow man is bleaker: the POWs are ready to condemn one of their number to death based on suspicion alone.

It’s only in the final reel, on Christmas Day, that we’re given hope and that Sefton gets the opportunity for redemption, to become a hero to his comrades and offer himself for a dangerous mission in place of one of them. To the end, he maintains he’s motivated solely by money, but they, and we, know better.

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