Merry Christmas to all you War Movie Monday fans and thank you for following this year’s cavalcade of classic war pictures. This week’s pick is in honor of the Christmas season, with the 1953 William Wilder classic Stalag 17 which follows a group of American Air Force prisoners of war who are faced with a traitor among them in this movie adapted from the hit Broadway play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski who were both prisoners in the infamous Austrian camp.
The film stars William Holden (Sgt. Sefton), Don Taylor (Lt. Dunbar), Otto Priminger (Col. Von Scherbach), Robert Strauss (Stanislas “Animal” Kasava), Harvey Lembeck (Harry Shapiro), Peter Graves (Price), Sig Ruman (Sgt. Schulz), Gil Stratton (Clarence Harvey “Cookie” Cook), Neville Brand (Duke), and Richard Erdman (Hoffy). The film’s narration is performed by Stratton throughout the film.
The film opens with an escape performed by two inmates Manfredi and Johnson, who plan to tunnel out through the wire and make their way to neutral Switzerland. Thinking that all precautions have been taken, barracks chief Hoffy (Erdman) green lights the escape and the two men are intercepted and shot by the German guards who have been tipped off about the escape.
The following morning, Col. Von Scherbach’s (Priminger) men display the two dead American prisoners in the mud of the compound yard and tell the prisoners that any future escape attempts will be met with the same result. He reminds the prisoners that no one has ever escaped Stalag 17 and that they shall all sit out the rest of the war comfortably and without any other unnecessary losses. Word begins to spread among the camp and the Americans are convinced that one of their own is an informant for the Germans.
The primary suspect in the camp is Sgt. Sefton (Holden) who turns out an amazing Oscar winning performance as the American hustler who barters and procures contraband from the Germans such as fresh eggs, silk stockings, cigarettes, and other amenities. Many of the men in the camp detest Sefton and are especially upset that he waged odds against both Manfredi and Johnson. Sefton wins a large number of cigarettes, which he then trades to the Germans for an egg for breakfast. Hoffy, Duke and others dislike Sefton and want to have him removed from their barracks and continue to point the finger at him as the sole reason for the death of the two prisoners.
The prisoners lives in the camp consist of waiting for mail, visits from the Geneva man to see if the German captors are abiding by the rules concerning the treatment of prisoners of war (which they are not), and trying to hide a radio which is smuggled from barracks to barracks so the men can listen to news reports from the BBC and know how the war is turning out. The two comic reliefs in the film are both Robert Strauss (“Animal”) and Harvey Lembeck (Shapiro) (both who were in the Broadway production).
My favorite scene in the film is where both “Animal” and Harry Shapiro try to gain access to the Russian women’s compound while the women are being filed into a shower bath. The two men begin to paint a white line down the road to the shower bath, while the rest of the men in the barracks look on in amazement and worry that the two may be shot for such an act. Animal sees the woman he refers to as “The Brick Kremlin” and tries to follow her inside. The rest of the Russian beauties smile and giggle at the two sexually aroused comedic Americans. The two men are stopped by a German guard who chases them back to the prison compound. The rest of the camp cheers that the two had gotten that close to the coveted Russian beauties.
Tensions flare even further as the camp is convinced that Sefton is the stoolie and that the Germans are getting more tips about other secrets such as the camp radio and that the newly arrived Lt. Dunbar (Taylor) was a saboteur who blew up a vital German ammunition train before his capture. With no one else to turn to, Sefton does some investigating of his own and finds out that one of their own isn’t exactly who they say they are. The conclusion of the film is quite possibly one of the greatest Hollywood moments of all time.
Stalag 17 was a major success for Paramount Pictures that year and Holden won Best Actor for his performance as the curmudgeon loner Sefton. Initially Holden refused the role due to the character being too cynical and Selfish. Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas were also considered for the role, but Holden agreed to do the film and was contracted by Paramount to give them another great performance. Wilder was nominated for Best Director and Robert Strauss for Best Supporting Actor.
Stalag 17 has always been a favorite of mine and is considered to be one of the greatest prisoner of war films along with The Great Escape and The Bridge on the River Kwai (also starring Holden). Stalag 17 was also an inspiration for the beloved 1960s television series Hogan’s Heroes which was a light hearted look at the hilarious hijinks of an American Colonel and other allied POWs who tried numerous escape attempts from a German stockade.
Stalag 17 is available on DVD from Paramount Home Video and can be rented through Netflix.