I know I’m going to be in the distinct minority here. At the IMDb 95 out of 100 reviewers praise this to the skies. What’s even stranger to me is that I distinctly recall enjoying it when I first saw it, many years ago, and possibly even on a second viewing. But I am very sorry to say that this is a bad, bad movie. It is even offensive. And the sad part is that, buried deep in here is a pretty good story, starring William Holden. (He won an Oscar, which he didn’t think he deserved. I agree with him. Either Montgomery Clift or Burt Lancaster were better in From Here to Eternity. Holden’s was a consolation Oscar because he didn’t win in 1950 for Sunset Boulevard, when he should have.) But this story would add up to about a thirty-minute TV episode once you had cut away all the truly awful “comic” horrors.
The thing is, the first time through I didn’t realize this was meant to be, primarily, a comedy. It has to be the absolute worst “service comedy” of all time. You know, those movies made for returning G.I.s (who mostly served in the rear areas, I’ve always felt), showing what wild and crazy guys they were. Didn’t we have fun in WWII? You betcha! I don’t know where you could find a worse idea for a WWII comedy unless you made a song-and-dance musical at Auschwitz where the inmates broke into a buck-and-wing on their way to the gas chambers.
You think I’m being too harsh? Let me just tell you of the absolutely godawfulest, most stunningly insensitive skit out of half a dozen truly stupid ones. Robert Strauss (as “Animal,” and I’ll get back to him) and Harvey Lembeck, as his sidekick Shapiro (a Jew who joins in on the Christmas carols) come up with a scheme to ogle the Russian women prisoners on their way to the delousing station. A scene that can’t help but remind me of Jews headed to the showers. It involves painting a line on the ground and then, when they get there, actually breaking into a dance as they sing The Volga Boatman. You can’t make this shit up! (Well, actually Billy Wilder and Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski did, didn’t they?)
Most of these “Russian peasant women” look as if they could try out for the Rockettes once this little bit of unpleasantness is over. So here’s what offends me down to my boots. Do you know what it was really like for Russian POWs? The fucking Nazis viewed them as untermenschen, sub-humans, only one step up from a Jew. So the Geneva Conventions didn’t apply to them. When a Caucasian POW died, he was given a full military funeral. Fucking Nazi officers attended, and paid their respects. No goddam kidding! When Russians died they were shoveled into mass graves at the end of the workday. The bill of fare for U.S. POWs was not five-star, but they barely fed the Russians at all. What was the point? They were going to work them to death, and there were always more Russians.
There is a documentary on the DVD where former POWs tell of what it was really like. Harsh, but by and large the fucking Nazis adhered to the Geneva Conventions with Americans and British and French. It was way, way worse in Jap prison camps. This one old man broke down and cried when he recalled seeing how the Russians were treated, just on the other side of the barbed wire at Stalag 17. And these filmmakers made a fucking joke out of it! I totally love Billy Wilder, but I can’t forgive him, a Polish-Viennese Jew, for this film.
In fact I keep wondering who to blame for one of the worst, most over-the-top, stupidest performances I have ever seen in a film, which is Robert Strauss as Animal. Should I be pissed at Strauss for not only chewing the scenery, but actually eating and shitting out large chunks of it? Or should I be pissed at Wilder for either allowing him to do it, or actually demanding that he do it? It’s a real problem for me.
I probably should stop belaboring it, piling one thing after another on this beloved film. (“Better than The Great Escape!) was a common comment I read.) But the fact is that there are hardly ten frames of this story that I found believable. Sure, I know these men had to make their own entertainment, but I just do not buy that one of the things they did was close dancing with each other. On and on and on! Maybe for thirty seconds, as a joke, but blow me if I can see them dancing like we see here. Ditto marching around the barracks, singing “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” like little Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney gathering all the neighborhood kids so they can put on a show in Farmer Brown’s barn. And I’ve only hit a few of the low points here.
The only thing I can figure is that, in the very successful stage show from which this was adapted, the super-broad comic antics weren’t so terrible when seen from a distance. In a film like this, though, Strauss is right up in your fucking face when he delivers his stupid, totally unfunny lines. But that doesn’t account for why so many people love the film. I guess that will always be a mystery to me.