100 New Code Films #6. “Stalag 17” from 1953

100 New Code Films

We are nearing the end of the week, so it is time to write about one of the new Code films I have watched this week as part of my series 100 New Code Films. I will try to watch two American Breen Era (1934-1954) movies I have never seen before every week for most of this year so that I will only have to do one per week in the last few weeks. The purpose of this series is to broaden my knowledge of Code films by watching as many of them as possible. In my lifetime, I hope to watch every Code film ever made if I can.

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Today’s topic is  Stalag 17 from 1953. I watched this film on Sunday in preparation for this week, since I had some free time then. When I started this series, I made a list of all the films which won major Academy Awards during the Breen Era which I haven’t seen yet. Between the Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress categories, they amounted to twenty-eight films. I am going to try to watch as many of these films as possible during this year, if not all of them. I think it is good to watch noteworthy Code films as well as obscure ones to get a well-rounded impression of the Breen Era. I wrote an article for a publication about the 1954 Academy Awards ceremony this week, so I thought that I should watch the two big-winning films from that year I haven’t seen yet. William Holden won Best Actor for his performance in this film, so I decided to watch it as my first new Code film of 2020’s fourth week. This is the first film from my list of Oscar-winning films which I have watched so far this year.

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In a prison camp in World War II Germany, the American POWs in Barracks 4 strategically plan the escape of two men, but their hopes are dashed when the two men are shot right outside the camp. They know that someone must have tipped off the soldiers about the escape, and they immediately suspect the only selfish man in the barrack. He runs several rackets to win cigarettes from the other soldiers, which he trades with the guards for personal comforts, since he only looks out for himself. Is he capable of betraying his fellow Americans, or is there another spy in the barrack?

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This movie stars William Holden, Don Taylor, and Otto Preminger. Supporting actors include Robert Strauss, Harvey Lembeck, Richard Erdman, Peter Graves, and Neville Brand.

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Production Notes

This movie was directed and produced by Billy Wilder. The production company was Paramount Pictures. This movie was written for the screen by Billy Wilder and Edwin Blum. It was based on the play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski. Stalag 17 was nominated for two Academy Awards, Best Supporting Actor for Robert Strauss and Best Director for Billy Wilder. William Holden won his only Best Actor Academy Award for his performance as Sgt. Sefton. Billy Wilder was nominated for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures by the Directors Guild of America. The National Board of Review listed it in its Top Ten Films of the year. William Holden was nominated for a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor. The Writers Guild of America nominated this film for the Best Written American Comedy.

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Code Compliance

This is a fair Code film. It was so successful in so many ways. A film like this, set in the trenches of a dirty, muddy prison camp, could so easily be very dirty, filled with foul language, crudeness, and violence. However, this film was very clean and acceptable because of its observance of the Code. There were a few minor Code violations which I noticed which require a classification of fair, but they were relatively insignificant. There were numerous uses of the forbidden expressions lousy and broad, as well as the coarse word cruddy. There were a couple of violent or pointed lines, such as a reference to a shell-shocked soldier having seen his comrades guts splattered on their planes, but I considered these passable in the context of this war film. The only other objection was that one soldier burped to show his opinion of Hitler. These points are all quite nitpicky. In general, I was so impressed with the cleanness of this film. Billy Wilder is notorious for his Code-violating films in the Shurlock Era, so it is very nice to see his Breen Era films which are really in the spirit of the Code.

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I highly recommend this film. It is very entertaining. It has a unique blend of drama and comedy. The moments which are focused on the conflict between the soldiers and prisoners or the secret POW activities are very tense and often nail-biting, but they are interspersed with the comical antics of prisoners Animal (Robert Strauss) and Harry Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck). William Holden delivers a wonderful performance in this film. I think that he deserved his Oscar. He does a great job of creating an initially unlikeable character who grows more sympathetic throughout the film as we learn more about him. The rest of the cast has a great rapport which is very realistic in terms of their comradery and their tension. The script is very clever. The depiction of how American POWs lived and felt in prison camps was very realistic to me, and it is a subject which is still pertinent today. I found this to be an excellent film with inspiring patriotism. It deserves more acclaim as one of Billy Wilder’s finest films.

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