Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Different Kind of War Story

Sgt. Schulz (Sig Ruman): How do you expect to win the war with an army of clowns?

Lt. Dunbar (Don Taylor): We sort of hope you'd laugh yourselves to death.

I don't remember how old I was when I first saw "Stalag 17," the Billy Wilder war comedy/drama that premiered 60 years ago today.

What I do remember is that — for awhile — I thought "Stalag 17" was the inspiration for Hogan's Heroes, a sitcom that was popular when I was little. Both, after all, were set in POW camps during World War II, and both had German sergeants named Schultz.

(Also, the camp in Hogan's Heroes had a name that was reminiscent of the movie — Stalag 13.)

But the Schultz in Hogan's Heroes was a buffoon whereas the Schulz (note the absence of the t) in "Stalag 17" was a by–the–book German soldier.

And, in nearly every respect, the plot and tone of each was different from the other — significantly so.

Consequently, I'm not nearly as inclined to see a solid link between the movie and the TV show

Hogan's Heroes was played strictly for laughs, usually at the expense of the incompetent Germans. That was probably easier to do with two decades separating the end of the war and the debut of the TV show. By that time, it was easier to joke about the Germans and the war.

Not quite eight years had passed since the end of the war when "Stalag 17" was showing on America's movie screens. The memory of Hitler and his regime was still fresh — still raw — in 1953.

There was more drama in "Stalag 17" — reflecting, perhaps, the respect that still existed for a Germany that had thrust the globe into two world wars in the 20th century. But, by the 1960s, that respect seems to have dissolved into ridicule — we beat the Germans twice in this century seems to have been the attitude by that time. Hogan and his co–prisoners were capable of doing anything they wanted to do; even if Schultz found out about something, he could be bribed into keeping his mouth shut.

The prisoners stayed there entirely by choice. It was presented as a patriotic thing, really. They could have escaped easily at any time, but they could influence the outcome of the war where they were.

Sometimes they used that to their advantage, setting up the Germans to discover some alleged breakout, giving the inept Nazi commandant and his easily influenced sergeant a chance to boast that no one had ever escaped from their prison camp.

But mostly they used it for the benefit of the Allied effort.

Sgt. Schulz, on the other hand, was a no–nonsense soldier, and the prisoners he ruled definitely were not there by choice.

Sure, there were slapstick moments, but I wouldn't call "Stalag 17" a slapstick movie — whereas Hogan's Heroes was often a slapstick sitcom.

Mostly, I guess, the comedy of "Stalag 17" came in the form of one–liners and sight gags — but there was a generous portion of drama in it as well.

William Holden, who had so many fine performances in his career, may have given his best in "Stalag 17" as the prisoner who was suspected by his bunkmates of being the informant responsible for the Germans' advance knowledge of many things, like the escape attempt of two young Americans who were gunned down outside the camp and the presence in the barracks of a radio that was used to monitor developments in the war.

(In fact, Holden won his only Best Actor Oscar for his performance in "Stalag 17." I suppose it is a matter of personal opinion whether that performance was better than the ones he gave in "Sunset Boulevard" and "Network," the other movies for which he was nominated for Best Actor, but that is the one that was honored, and the quality of his competition for the award — Richard Burton, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and Burt Lancaster — is beyond dispute.)

Suspicion of Holden's character finally led the other prisoners to beat him up — one finds it hard to imagine the prisoners in "Hogan's Heroes" beating up Col. Hogan (or even feeling compelled to do so).

The prisoners in Hogan's Heroes had a quiet confidence that they were far superior to their captors. The prisoners in "Stalag 17" were much less secure and much more vulnerable. Their situation was real, and I guess I always assumed that their humor was more of a coping mechanism.

Anyway, when the prisoners learned what the audience had known for awhile — that the apparently All–American boy (Peter Graves) was the informant — they set him up permanently.

I guess that is an example of what I so often heard when I was a boy in Arkansas — "What goes around comes around."