"Sophistication" is a relative term in Hollywood, and especially in classic Hollywood, where filmmakers often get credit for smarts just because they slipped a dirty joke past the censors. But there's something bracing even now about Billy Wilder's 1953 prison-camp comedy Stalag 17, in which a bunch of hairy, sweaty, vulgar American soldiers look and act like men, and not some marketing department's clean-cut heroic ideal. Like a lot of Wilder's oeuvre, Stalag 17 is open about the comic side of lust, and that frankness—however slight—still sounds refreshingly adult, even in throwaway jokes like the one where a prisoner reads a letter from his girl at home, who claims she found a baby on her doorstep that, unbelievably, has her eyes and nose.
William Holden stars as a slick-talking sergeant who irritates his campmates because he brazenly makes swaps and takes odds on who's going to live or die—in other words, because he's more openly capitalist. The story is driven by an investigation into who in the camp might be feeding inside information to the Germans, with Holden a prime suspect because of his anything-for-a-buck, every-man-for-himself front. But this is still a Hollywood movie, and in Wilder's pictures, the cynics ride the tide of human misery on a thick board of regret while wearing an invisible cloak of sentiment. Ultimately, the mystery is just a hook on which Wilder and co-screenwriter Edwin Blum (adapting a play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski) hang a bunch of ironic sketches about Nazi arrogance and dogged American ingenuity. The movie is about making do under deplorable conditions, and only tangentially about what it means to be "an American hero."
Wilder's reputation for maturity remains debatable, especially in Stalag 17, where his crowd-pleasing instincts lead him to indulge in corny vaudeville shtick between Harvey Lembeck and Robert Strauss, playing the camp's resident prankster/horndogs. But Wilder does at least create the illusion that he's treating the audience like grown-ups, beginning with an opening narration that promises to show us a different kind of war movie (assuming the audience has never seen the films of Jean Renoir or Sam Fuller). In the end, Stalag 17's irreverence likely didn't revolutionize moviemaking for adults so much as it paved the way for the likes of M*A*S*H and Animal House. Then again, that alone is an achievement worth celebrating.
Key features: Well-produced short featurettes about the making of the movie and the real-life Stalag XVII-B, plus an amiable but spotty commentary track by playwright Don Bevan and cast members Richard Erdman and Gil Stratton.