Humor and Satire in War Movies

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Phillip Smith Com 222 12/13/10 Final Essay

There is more than one way to get a point across in the movies. Movies based on actual events, movies made using actual facts but not always about true events, documentary films and those films that use humor or satire to get their point across. I think the three films that I chose fall into the last category. The first film (released in 1953) is Stalag 17, a film about American prisoners of war being held in a German prison camp. This film seems to follow the typical war movie theme, group unity for a common cause and no single hero. The movie stars William Holden who as Sergeant Sefton, a wheeler-dealer who doesn't hesitate to trade with the guards and who has acquired goods and privileges that no other prisoner seems to have is accused of being a German spy by his fellow prisoners. The Germans always seem to be forewarned about escapes and in the most recent attempt the two men, Manfredi and Johnson, walked straight into a trap and were killed. For some in Barracks 4, especially the loud-mouthed Duke, the leaker is obvious. An officer is passing though on the way to another camp, tells of how he sabotaged an ammunition train by luck using matches. The Germans find out and now he has to hide so he can escape to avoid being shot. The director Billy Wilder created a popular film loaded with subversive subtexts, his signature cynicism and humor (although it’s sometimes a feeble attempt at humor it is humor just the same). WW II wasn’t even a decade old yet and maybe it wasn’t the right time to make a movie depicting the conditions of the German prisoner camps in such a realistic manner, but there seem to be a goldmine of possibilities within that setting for the directing genius of Wilder. By today’s standards it may be difficult to appreciate Stalag 17 as a classic film due to the TV show Hogan’s Heroes that it inspired. Wilder’s directing style, wit and perception are lost in the interpretation, but the films humor still remains. Another reason for lack of appreciation the basics of the Stalag 17’s plot have become the staple in terms of wartime incarceration and general prison-break films. Still, it is interesting to see the matter-of-fact style in an escape film. Most focus on the details of the elaborate plan, but Stalag 17 follows the most practical route make a run for the fence while the guards are diverted which, when you think about it, is a more likely scenario besides how easy do you think it is to lay your hands on a pair of wire cutters in a prison camp. Broadly played, the humor, serves as a good method for getting away with the more subtle subversive aspects of the film. As Wilder once was quoted “that if one was going to tell the truth, be funny or they'll kill you." There is a long musical scene as one of the POWs sings while the rest celebrate Christmas by dancing with each other. The men are nice and toasted after having raided Sefton's booze and Animal is desperately pining over Betty Grable. When Shapiro stuffs yellow straw under a bonnet as a gag, Animal thinks his dream girl has come to life and starts to dance and come on to Shapiro as he thinks Shapiro is Betty Grable. You can’t say that Sgt. Sefton is the hero of the movie, even Holden sited the unlikeability of the character, but his vicious, sharp and charismatic demeanor was enough for you to forgive him and root for him anyway. Holden’s character doesn’t change his wheeling and dealing ways at the end of the movie and one of his fellow prisoners remarks as Sefton is escaping "Maybe he just wanted to steal our wire cutters. You ever think of that?" Wilder had little use for such sentimentality and it is reflected in Stalag...
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