Thursday, December 20, 2012

Movies I Like: Stalag 17

You can’t beat Billy Wilder—the guy was amazing, so good that it’s almost scary. He was a screenwriter first, and if he had remained a writer, he would still be a legend; he and his early writing partner CharlesBrackett wrote several hits for Paramount studios.   Because of this success, he was able to convince the studio to let him try his hand at directing. He went on to direct a string of classics. Stalag 17 is one of those classics.

Billy Wilder and  early writing partner Charles Brackett
I should state that I don’t think that the film is perfect—much of the comedy doesn’t age well. It’s much too broad for modern sensibilities and often distracting. (I go into more detail about this in my book Invisible Ink.) Still, in most ways, it is a solid piece of work that entertains.

Stalag 17, made in 1953, takes place in a German POW camp during World War II. The prisoners are all American airmen, who begin to suspect that one of their fellow prisoners is working with the Germans and feeding them valuable information. Which of them is the traitor?

The suspicion falls on a man named Sergeant J.J. Sefton, played by one of my favorite actors of all time, William Holden (who won an Academy Award for the role). Sefton seems to get favors from the Germans, and he seems privy to information that must have come from them. He also has a trunk full of supplies and goodies that the other prisoners do not have: Sefton has soap to wash with while the others do not. Sefton eats eggs, while the others must eat watery potato soup.

William Holden as Sefton
Not only is Sefton is permitted to visit the off-limits area where the female prisoners are held, but he charges all the men in the camp to have a look at the women through a telescope he has managed to acquire.

For all of these reasons, when the group suspects that there is a spy amongst them, Sefton is the prime suspect. Sefton contends that it’s a POW camp, after all, and that he has just learned to live by his wits. He has learned how to trade well and that’s how he gets things, but that that doesn’t make him a traitor.

At some point two new prisoners are introduced to the barracks. One of them is a guy that Sefton knows—a rich guy named Lieutenant Dunbar. Sefton doesn’t like Dunbar, believing that the rich guy has had life easy because of his wealth.

Dunbar and Sefton
This is great story construction. The inclusion of Lieutenant Dunbar is at the heart of what makes this story work: The group is judging Sefton the same way Sefton is judging Dunbar.

Wilder shows Dunbar to be a team player, even though he outranks everyone in the barracks and is worth 25 million bucks. Right away, when he is introduced as a lieutenant, he waves it off as unimportant—he just wants to be one of the guys.

What makes Billy Wilder better than most writers is that his stories are not just a series of events strung together. His stories have a point—a reason for being told. In this story we learn something about the danger jumping to conclusions before we have all the facts, and just how wrong we can be. In the end, the prisoners learn that they should have not been so quick to judge while Sefton learns the same thing.

Billy Wilder with his six Oscars
Knowing how to make a fun, entertaining film that has a meaningful theme at its core is what helped win Wilder six Academy Awards and a place in film history as one of the giants. Believe me, if you learn how to master this aspect of the craft of storytelling there may be a few awards in your future, too.


jean said...

Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures.
Jessamyn West

Hi Brian.
This quote reminded me of your blog. A story is about a truth. The "string of events" that some mistake for story (I did for too long a time) is simply the means to reveal that truth. Once I began to understand this I realized I had to first find the armature or theme of my story, and once I did, I could clearly see how the beginning, middle, and ending all interconnected and became one.

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