Vintage Movies: “Stalag 17”

MAGNET contributing writer Jud Cost is sharing some of the wealth of classic films he’s been lucky enough to see over the past 40 years. Trolling the backwaters of cinema, he has worked up a list of more than 500 titles—from the silent era through the ’90s—that you may have missed. A new selection, all currently available on DVD, appears every week.

Stalag17

Stalag 17 (1952, 120 minutes)

Mud everywhere you look, lousy food, barbed wire, wretched sanitary conditions and guards on every tower, ready to machine-gun down anyone who tries to escape. Inmates of San Quentin or Sing Sing probably had it better. This is a Nazi prisoner of war compound during World War II called Stalag 17, full of U.S. Army airmen, not a pleasant place to live out the war. If it sounds familiar, Stalag 17 was the obvious inspiration for The Great Escape with Steve McQueen and James Garner, 10 years later.

It’s the week before Christmas, the long anticipated night Manfredi and Johnson will attempt their carefully planned escape through a tunnel. A false top is removed from a large barrel to retrieve the clothing that will disguise the pair as French laborers.

“OK, let’s hear it again,” says the American camp chief. “We’ve been over this 100 times,” says one of the plotters. “Let’s hear it again.” The other GI lays out the well-rehearsed escape plan: “We stick to the forest going west until we hit the Danube. Then we follow the river to Linz, hop a barge to Ulm and take a train to Friedrichshafen. We steal some fishing tackle and a rowboat and drift across the lake to Switzerland.” The pair gets a fervent, but quiet, send-off from their pals: “Show ’em, boys!” and even “Auf Wiedersehen” before they disappear down a trap door to the ground below and head straight for the wash room.

“I’ll bet they make it all the way to Switzerland!” says one of the yanks left behind. “And I’ll bet they don’t make it out of the forest,” says Sefton (William Holden), the camp scrounger whose quarters are full of what passes for money in prison: booze, cigarettes. “What kinda crack is that!” says the chief. “No crack. I’ll bet two packs of cigarettes,” says Sefton. “That’s enough, Sefton. Crawl back in your sack,” orders the chief. “He’d make book on his mother getting hit by a truck,” says the one they call Animal. “Anybody call?” asks Sefton. “I’ll back those kids. I’ll take 10,” says Shapiro. “And I’ll take five.” “Put me down for 10,” says Hoffy as cigarettes begin raining down on the table.”

Just outside the compound’s walls, Manfredi and Johnson carefully emerge from the tunnel, well concealed by the forest from the guards on the walls.

No sooner do they stand up to run toward the trees than they are ruthlessly mowed down by a nest of machine guns directly in their path. When two bodies covered by a tarp are seen by the Americans at roll call the next morning, word begins to spread that there must be a spy planted in their midst. And the morning line fingers Sefton as the rat.