Posts Tagged ‘prisoners of war’

This book tells the heartbreaking and horrific story of the British prisoners of war who were forced to build the Burmese Railway during World War II. When Reg Twigg joined the army at the outbreak of the war, he expected to be sent to fight the Germans in Europe, but ended up in Singapore when it fell to the Japanese.

The conditions that these mainly British, Australian and Dutch soldiers endured were beyond imagining, and they died in the thousands – either murdered by the sadistic guards, or were so starved that their bodies couldn’t survive. Dysentry and Cholera were rife in the prison camps and it became commonplace for the soldiers to find themselves burying their former comrades.

That Reg survived is partly due to luck, and partly due to his own resourcefulness. He harvested illicit pumpkins from the kitchen rubbish (a risk that could have seen him punished by death if he had been caught) and trapped snakes and lizards to eat.

I don’t know if I could say that I enjoyed this book – given the subject matter, it’s not exactly a pleasant read. But it’s fascinating and gripping in the same way that a horror film can be – except that this was real life for so many.

I learned a lot about the famous bridge over the River Kwai (for example, it wasn’t over the Rover Kwai at all!) and a LOT about the Burmese Railway which Reg and his fellow prisoners were forced to build. It was an absorbing insight into a dreadful time. I do recommend this book, but be prepared for some upsetting scenes.

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Stalag 17 is part of a prison camp in World War II, where American prisoners of war are kept. When two of them attempt to escape and their plan is foiled, a POW named J.J. Sefton (William Holden) is suspected of leaking details of the escape plan to the Germans. When the German Officers seem to be constantly one step ahead of the POW’s – finding out about the radio they have smuggled into the camp, for instance – the suspicion grows, and Sefton is ostracised by the others, especially since it is known that he trades goods with the guards in order to obtain privileges for himself. As tensions rise, it becomes clear to Sefton that he will have to find the real informant if he is to exonerate himself.

This film was not the first, nor the last collaboration between director Billy Wilder and actor William Holden. I would not even count it as the best (that honour would go to Sunset Boulevard), but still, I thoroughly enjoyed Stalag 17, and unhesitatingly would rate it 10/10.

Holden – one of the most under-rated actors of the 20th century (in my opinion, for what it’s worth) – turns in a superb performance as Sefton, a not-altogether-sympathetic or likeable character. He quite rightly won the Oscar for his performance in this film. Otto Preminger, usually known for directing films rather than starring in them – is also great as the head of the camp, and Sig Ruman, as the officer in charge of Stalag 17, is perfect in his role too.

The tension is mainained throughout – the audience becomes aware of who the informant is, quite a while before the POWs in Stalag 17, but this does not detract from the tension of the story at all. And it is quite some achievement to incorporate comedy, thrills and tension in a film about a WWII prisoner of war camp, but that is exactly what happens here. It has quite a claustrophobic atmosphere, as most of the action takes place in the hut where the POW’s live, and all of it takes place inside the camp itself. This helps to raise the sense of distrust and suspicion.

The ending is great – it rounds off the story perfectly, and I could not have predicted it.

Overall – definitely a film worth seeing!

Year of release: 1953

Director: Billy Wilder

Producers: Billy Wilder, William Schorr

Writers: Donald Bevan (play), Edmund Trzcinski (play), Billy Wilder, Edwin Blum

Main cast: William Holden, Don Taylor, Otto Preminger, Robert Strauss, Harvey Lembeck, Richard Erdman, Sig Ruman, Peter Graves

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