HILARIOUS, HEART-TUGGING! YOU’LL LAUGH… YOU’LL CRY… YOU’LL CHEER WILLIAM HOLDEN IN HIS GREAT ACADEMY AWARD ROLE!
When this film turned out to be a box-office hit, director Billy Wilder allegedly asked Paramount for a generous cut of the profits. He was however informed that his last picture, Ace in the Hole (1951), lost money and that the sum would be subtracted from the profits on Stalag 17. Wilder eventually left Paramount, hardly the first or last time a studio loses an influential star due to greed. I guess they should have been more grateful to the guy who just made one of the most important POW films ever, one that would go on to inspire movies like The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).
It’s 1944 and Christmas is coming to a German prisoner-of-war camp along the Danube River. The American prisoners, all sergeants, are preparing to send two of their own down a tunnel that will take them to freedom. J.J. Sefton (William Holden) doesn’t believe in the plan though and is willing to bet that the two guys won’t even make it to the forest outside of the camp. He turns out to be right; they’re shot at the end of the tunnel. The remaining prisoners begin to suspect that there’s a traitor in their midst and who better to blame than the guy who keeps telling them that escape is impossible – Sefton. In order to create a more comfortable life, the cynical sergeant always makes deals with German soldiers. His philosophy is to stay put in the camp rather than to escape and then get sent back to fight the war.
His fellow prisoners despise him for that. But Sefton realizes that he’s the only one who knows that the real traitor can operate freely without suspicion since everyone’s eyes are on Sefton. He figures out who the traitor is and that the guy’s communicating with the ever cheerful Sergeant Schultz (Sig Rumann) through a chess game…
Written by two former POW’s
The original play was written by two former POW’s, but realism is not its greatest strength. This production is perfect, light Hollywood entertainment that doesn’t take you to the grim realities of a German POW camp, but it’s hard to complain when that doesn’t seem to be the purpose. Wilder takes the story’s two most important ingredients, humor and tension, and balances them carefully. It is part loving portrayal of the camaraderie among the prisoners, part thriller where the audience keeps wondering who the traitor is. There’s also the question of how to deal with him after he’s exposed, how to punish him in a way that won’t get everybody executed.
The interaction between the Germans and the Americans is hostile, but there’s also a degree of friendliness, not least because of the jovial Schultz (“droppen sie dead!”). There’s that balance again and it’s also obvious in the character of Colonel von Scherbach (Otto Preminger), the camp commander who wants peace and quiet among the prisoners… but isn’t afraid to show a more vicious streak as well. Robert Strauss and Harvey Lembeck repeated their Broadway performances as Animal and Harry, the clowns of the barracks, and are very amusing (even though their shenanigans only distance the film further from realism).
Holden is also terrific as Sefton, a not very likable figure who eventually gets a chance both to redeem himself and possibly benefit in other ways as well.
Wilder knew that the emotional payoff would be stronger if there was darkness behind the laughter. He would use this balance in later films as well, notably Some Like It Hot (1959). In that sense, gangsters and wars are good for something at least.
Stalag 17 1953-U.S. 120 min. B/W. Produced and directed by Billy Wilder. Screenplay: Billy Wilder, Edwin Blum. Play: Donald Bevan, Edmund Trzcinski. Cast: William Holden (J.J. Sefton), Don Taylor (James Dunbar), Otto Preminger (von Scherbach), Robert Strauss, Harvey Lembeck, Richard Erdman… Peter Graves, Sig Ruman.
Trivia: Kirk Douglas and Charlton Heston were allegedly considered for the part of Sefton.
Oscar: Best Actor (Holden).
Last word: “[Preminger] had trouble remembering his lines and would get very embarrassed and say that he was rusty because he hadn’t acted in so many years. He said he would send me a pound of caviar every time that he had a day when he blew his lines. Well, several pounds of caviar arrived for me in the course of shooting that film, but he gave a fine performance.” (Wilder, “Billy Wilder: Interviews”)