“at ease, at ease!” this is a pretty great film by all accounts. the most obvious comparison is to the great escape because it’s the other popular p.o.w. camp film. as strange as it may sound, i think this film is easier to like because it’s lighter, tighter, and more charming. that said, i think that the great escape is better. like stalag 17, the great escape has comic relief, but is able to stroll the entire range of human emotions in a more meaningful and impacting way. stalag 17, on the other hand, deals with very real issues of death or pent up sexuality, but does so in a very humorous way so you don’t really feel their impact as fully as maybe you should. i tend to give the edge to a film that allows the viewer to experience a greater range of emotions, and that’s a big reason that i rank the great escape higher than this film. this may be a flaw in my critical approach, but it’s i think it makes sense to reward a film for being able to do a wide range of things well. i’m not saying that a straight comedy like “planes, trains, and automobiles” will always be less of a film than a film that dabbles in several genres, but i do give the edge to the great escape because the films are similar. all this is almost a moot point though because stalag 17 is so good at what it does. i don’t want to give the impression that stalag 17 is a straight comedy because it isn’t. there are some serious moments, but it’s clearly more of a comedy than it is any other genre of film.
so far as i’ve been able to tell, billy wilder’s strength is in making good films, rather than being a great director. the difference, at least to me, is that a great director elevates the work with their direction, composition, and visual style. billy wilder certainly makes good films, but i can’t recall seeing a film of his that was enhanced that much by his visual style. i mean this more in the way of observation than as a slight of some sort. being able to consistently write and create good films is an art and skill of its own, but i can’t honestly say that there aren’t a dozen other directors who could, given the same cast and screenplay, come out with equally good results.
but back to stalag 17…it’s a great film with a great cast of characters (another fine william holden performance, his best?) and a great screenplay. the score is capable, but isn’t as epic as bernstein’s in the great escape. there are plenty of classic lines and moments. certainly worth owning.