US Release Date: 07-01-1953
Directed by: Billy Wilder
- William Holden, as
- Sgt. J.J. Sefton
- Don Taylor, as
- Lt. James Dunbar
- Otto Preminger, as
- Col. von Scherbach
- Robert Strauss, as
- Stanislas 'Animal' Kasava
- Harvey Lembeck, as
- Harry Shapiro
- Richard Erdman, as
- Peter Graves, as
- Neville Brand, as
- Sig Ruman, as
- Sgt. Johann Schulz
- Robinson Stone, as
- Robert Shawley as
William Holden in his Oscar winning performance as Sefton in Stalag 17.
When this movie starts, Cookie the narrator says, "What gets me is that there never was a movie about prisoners of war." Now, thanks in part to the success of this movie, they've practically become a genre of their own.
The plot takes place over just a few days in prisoner of war camp Stalag 17 during December, 1944. When two escaping prisoners are caught and shot the members of their barracks start to think that they might have a stool pigeon living amongst them. Suspicion immediately falls on Sefton (Holden) despite his protestations of innocence. Later the camp radio is found and when Sefton is seen visiting the women in the Russian camp next door the other prisoners immediately think it's Sefton's reward for turning it in and they beat him up as punishment. Sefton, continuing to deny guilt, vows to find out the real stoolie's identity.
Sefton is a wheeler-dealer. He sells homemade booze to the men and runs a weekly mouse race. His foot locker is stuffed with illegal goods that he's traded for with the German guards. He's got a smart mouth, a quick mind and a chip on his shoulder as evidenced by his attitude towards Lt. Dunbar and his family's money. He's definitely an anti-hero and it's a great part.
What surprised me upon rewatching this movie for the first time in many years, is just how little screen time Sefton actually has. Although he's the "hero" he doesn't get more screen time than anyone else. Shapiro and Animal, the movie's comic relief, are seen just as much as he is. The fact that Sefton stands out so much in my memory of this movie is a testament to Holden's performance.
Reportedly Holden didn't even want to take this part because he didn't like the character, but the studio forced him to do it. I'm sure he changed his mind later when he won the Oscar, but who knows, maybe being forced into it even helped his performance. You can see why he might have hesitated. To some Sefton is a collaborator who fraternizes with the enemy. He looks out for himself and takes advantage of anyone he can. At the same time though, he's completely open in his dealings. He's a salesmen, not a con artist.
Of the rest of the cast, Otto Preminger as Col. Von Scherbach is a standout. He only has a small part, and yet you know his character from the way it is played. He's a fastidious (he doesn't walk anywhere in camp until his men have laid down boards so his boots won't get muddy) former Calvary officer who looks down on his job and wants to advance by any means necessary. My favorite scene with him is when he has his boots put on so he can make a phone call and snap his heels in all the right places.
Some of the humor does seem a little dated and almost corny now. It's all very rated-G, as is the treatment of the men by the Germans. Despite their many complaints, all of the men seem quite well fed and lively. The only torture or mistreatment we're shown is when one man isn't allowed to sleep for 72 hours.
There have been many POW movies since this one; some better and some worse. The thing that will stay with you about this one is clearly William Holden's performance.
Otto Preminger as Col. von Scherbach in Stalag 17.
Stalag 17 was certainly influential. It was, most famously (although this has been legally disputed), the inspiration for the 1960s television sitcom Hogan’s Heroes and its style of mixing humor with war can also be seen as an influence in the movie and television series MASH. Billy Wilder adapted the screenplay from the stage play and he did a good job of opening it up for the screen.
I have to say that I enjoyed the dramatic aspects of the story more than the humor, which as Scott pointed out, is the most dated aspect of the movie. Animal and Shapiro provide most of the comic relief along with the bumbling German Sgt. Schulz. Two bits of humor that do hold up are the soldier that does impressions of famous Hollywood stars like Clark Gable, James Cagney and Cary Grant, and the guy that gets a letter from home in which his wife tells him she found a baby on their front doorstep. She tells him that he won’t believe it but the baby looks just like her. He keeps repeating to himself, “I believe it.”
I agree that Otto Preminger steals his scenes as the Colonel. He embodies every negative stereotype of the Nazi. He is arrogant, condescending and cruel but with a friendly smile on his face. His joke about Irving Berlin stealing his name from the German capital made me laugh.
And speaking of Irving Berlin, this is a prisoner of war holiday movie. As Scott said, the action takes place in the days leading up to, and on, Christmas Day. The soldiers sing carols in one scene. The Battle of the Bulge was being fought that December and the prisoners learn about it from their smuggled radio.
The best part of the story concerns the identity of the German spy and William Holden’s characters attempts to discover just who it is. In the photo in Scott’s review he has just witnessed first hand an exchange between the stool pigeon and Schulz. With a knowing look of satisfaction Holden strikes a match, lights his cigar and whispers, “Achsoo.” Which translates as “I see" or "aha”.
William Holden is just part of the ensemble cast but he is the best thing about the movie. Watch the way he delivers this line after being accused of being the stoolie by his fellow prisoners. “There are two people in this barracks who know I didn't do it. Me and the guy that did do it.” He may not have wanted to play J.J. Sefton but it paid off as he won the Oscar for Best Actor. Along with Jimmy Stewart’s win for The Philadelphia Story and Marlon Brando's for The Godfather this has to be one of the roles with the smallest amount of screen time to win this top honor.
Stalag 17 was a huge hit in 1953. It has influenced dozens of movies and television shows. There are aspects of it that haven’t aged well but overall it remains hugely entertaining.
Sgt. Schulz (Sig Ruman) and Sgt. Sefton (William Holden) in Stalag 17
I had not seen Stalag 17 in years, which was good because I had forgotten who was the traitor. As the first two men attempt to escape I was trying to figure out who was the guilty party. My second guess was right. Knowing who he is will not completely ruin the film for you. It is an important plot point, but Stalag 17 remains an engrossing drama, with an impeccable performance by Holden.
From 1950's Sunset Blvd to 1957's Bridge on the River Kwai, (another POW film) William Holden made an absurd amount of films that have become classics. They include Born Yesterday, Sabrina, Picnic, The Country Girl and more. No post World War II actor has had such an amazing collection of memorable films, and all made in an eight year span. All of these films were critically acclaimed and most received Oscar nominations, if not wins. He was the go to guy when casting a film in the 50s. He even turned down the role that Henry Fonda played in Mr Roberts (1955).
Holden's rugged good looks and onscreen charm serve him well as the loner Sefton. Those very qualities, plus the fact that the guy could actually act, made Holden one of the greatest leading men of the 1950s. As an interesting side note, he was Ronald Reagan's best man when he married Nancy Davis in 1952. Talk about being upstaged by a supporting player.
There is no doubt in my mind that Stalag 17 was an influence on Hogan's Heroes. It is most obvious with the character of Sgt. Schulz. In both the movie and the television show, a German guard named Sgt. Schulz spends a decent amount of time with the prisoners. In both cases he acts like a dullard, yet in the movie we discover he has been feigning it all along.
Billy Wilder, who worked with Holden on several classic films, was nominated for an Academy Award for best Director for Stalag 17. Wilder would receive 20 Oscar nominations in his career for directing and writing. Many from the 1950's. Stalag 17 is a collaboration between two men at the peak of their talent.
Photos © Copyright Paramount Pictures (1953)