By: Curtis M. Parvin
The game of Chess is not merely an idle amusement. Several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired or strengthened by it, so as to become habits, ready on all occasions. For life is a kind of chess, in which we have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with, and in which there is a vast variety of good and ill events, that are, in some degree, the effects of prudence or the want of it…”
– from The Morals of Chess by Benjamin Franklin
In order to achieve any goal, some form of strategy must be used – someone must plan their moves prior to applying their skill. This notion applies both to a chess player attempting to gain an advantage over an opponent or a filmmaker trying to capture the imagination of his/her audience. Director Billy Wilder employs various film techniques in his POW film Stalag 17 (1953) to capture viewers’ attentions, two of which reign supreme: single takes and the blocking of his actors.
Contemporary directors take for granted the power of the single take, something that was a more common feature during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and Stalag 17 (1953) used single takes to ease the transition from stage material to the big screen. Moreover, savvy directors were fully aware of how each cut detaches the viewer’s attention from their film. Single long takes resemble real world interactions, at least from a spectator’s point of view.
Blocking is used by Wilder in Stalag 17 (1953) to create tension and reinforce the camaraderie of other soldiers in the barracks. Notice how many times Sgt. J.J. Sefton (William Holden) is caught in the middle of fellow prisoners who think he may be leaking information to German guards. As the film goes on, these soldiers literally back him into a corner like a dog until he bites back at someone. Contrast this with the many two-shots of Animal (Robert Strauss) and Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck), whose friendship is reflected in the way the two actors are framed.
Now that Wilder has succeeded in grabbing the attention of the viewer with his camera, the events within the plot begin to mirror a strategic game of sorts. The motif of a chess match – a specific chess piece – is crucial to the viewer’s comprehension of Stalag 17’s plot. The chessboard on the barracks table functions as a microcosm of the war these prisoners are fighting behind enemy lines – with each other and against the Germans.
Often, characters can be viewed as pawns – unfortunate victims of circumstance. Joey (Robinson Stone) saw his friends killed in battle and suffers from shell shock as a result. Like a chess pawn, he was on the front line and can only move one space at a time. Given his predicament, it is unlikely his actions will have any major impact on the larger outcome. All he can do is try to boost morale by playing his ocarina.
Most of the other men, in Stalag 17, for that matter, function like pawns: their actions allow them to bide their time and keep their heads in the game, so to speak. A telescope is set up so the men can conduct peep shows of female Russian prisoners. A distillery is made so booze can calm nerves. POWS attempt to stay sane by brining in the outside world via a radio hidden in an amputee’s pant leg. The prisoners move and the informant counters, one step forward and two steps back.
Gambling was a way to pass the time in between escape plans, but became a telltale sign of boredom the stagnation in the barracks. For example, Animal (Strauss) and Shapiro (Lembeck) take part in a ‘horse race’ – actually mice found in the compound – only to have their prize steed chasing its tail in the middle of the main event. The circular motion of the mouse, like the loop tied in the hanging light bulb chord, suggests an endless cycle of action and reaction.
No significant progress is made until Lt. Dunbar (Don Taylor) is captured by the Germans and thrown into Stalag 17. Up to this point, pawns move around aimlessly without a strategy. Sefton (Holden) was selfish, cynical, and didn’t contribute to the team. Now, even he can’t deny the importance of helping Lt. Dunbar escape. Dunbar has given the men a purpose: he becomes the king who needs to be kept out of check.
When Price (Peter Graves) and Sefton (Holden) finally have their confrontation, the two queen pieces are battling it out in the game’s final moments. Sefton taunts Price, saying: “The pawn moves this way…and the bishop moves this way…and the queen moves every which way, doesn’t it?” Both men in the camp have the greatest freedom to move, Sefton by trading items for privileges and Price by giving up intel to the Germans. It is oddly appropriate that Sefton would be the only one sly enough to catch the real informant. In a weird way, I suppose, it takes one to know one.
The colors of the chess pieces in Stalag 17 were intentionally selected. The filmmaker, Billy Wilder, deliberately chose them to reflect the sentiment at the time of World War II. During the war years, everything was black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. Allied forces were the white knights attempting to liberate Europe from the dark shadow cast by Nazi Germany and the Axis.
Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953) is remembered for being the classic war picture that won William Holden the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Hopefully, in the future, more viewers will appreciate the craft that went into creating such a marvelous film. Look closely and you’ll acknowledge that this war picture is rich with symbolism, metaphor, and historical commentary.