Stalag 17 (1953)

This post came about as a result of a chance conversation with a friend who admitted that he often confused William Holden with Joseph Cotten. That reminded me, of course, of Holden (who happens to be among my favourite actors), and then of the shameful fact that I have never, not in the nearly-four years that this blog’s been in existence, reviewed a Holden film. [Though he is, even though you can’t see his face, part of the current blog header].

Stalag 17 is by far my favourite Holden film. Partly because it brilliantly combines two genres that I am partial to—war and suspense—and partly because it was scripted and directed by another favourite, Billy Wilder. In large part, though, it’s because of William Holden that Stalag 17 is a film that I can see over and over again.

The film begins with a brief mise en scène.  It is 1944, and the setting is a stalag—a Luftwaffe Prisoner of War camp. This is Stalag 17, and it is home to some 40,000 Allied POWs, including Americans, Russians (of whom some are women soldiers), Poles, etc.
One compound here consists of only American sergeants: 630 of them, all cooped into a set of barracks.

It is a week before Christmas, and we’re introduced to some of the occupants of Barracks 4, which is where the action is centred. There are, to begin with, the barracks clowns, Stanislaus ‘Animal’ Kuzawa (Robert Strauss) and Harry Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck).

Shapiro is the envied one who always receives the largest number of letters when the mail arrives, and boasts that they’re from all his lady friends back in the States. The ladies miss ‘Sugarlips Shapiro’, he says. [As a matter of fact, the letters are all from the bank, reminding him to pay the money due on the Plymouth he’d bought before he joined up].

‘Animal’, on the other hand, lays no claim to being a lady killer; instead, he’s completely infatuated with one lady: Betty Grable. He’s seen every single film of hers six times, and he has a poster of hers stuck on the inside of his bunk, where he can stare dreamy-eyed at her all the time. His greatest wish in life is to be able to meet Betty.

There is the Barracks Chief, ‘Hoffy’ Hoffmann (Richard Erdman), and the bearded, hot-headed Duke [Neville Brand—who, in real life, started off as a soldier during World War II, and began his acting career there, playing in army training films].

There is Joey (Robinson Stone), whose mental balance has suffered the ravages of war. Joey spends his time sitting quietly by and watching his colleagues; the only time he ever shows any signs of emotion are when he’s playing his flute. Music is about the only thing Joey still seems to be really connected with in this world.

And there is Security, Price (Peter Graves). ‘Security’, because Price’s job is to make sure that the Germans don’t cotton on to the American POWs’ attempts to escape or to keep in touch with what’s going on in the outside world.

One such episode is where the story begins: with a planned escape. On that night one week before Christmas, a carefully designed plan is being put into action to get two of the men out of Stalag 17 and (hopefully) across the woods, past the border and into Switzerland. The men have learnt and relearnt their instructions; they’ve been given forged identity papers; they’ve got their disguises; and Price has timed it all down to a T.

Everybody in Barracks 4 is excited—and certain that their two comrades are going to make it. How could they not? The planning is fool-proof.

One man, though, does not agree with the rest. Sergeant JJ Sefton (William Holden) is the pessimist (or the realist?) of the barracks. When the two men have been sent on their way—towards the latrines, where a tunnel has been dug—Sefton starts calling for bets. Who will bet on the chances that the two men won’t get out alive?

Sefton faces instant anger: all the men of the barracks rear up at him. How dare he even talk of such things?! But they’re so certain, they’re even willing to take on Sefton and bet against him.

…but it seems Sefton has been prophetic. Those beautifully laid plans go terribly awry, with German soldiers bursting out and gunning down the two men just as they are on the verge of fleeing into the forest.

The next morning, the Commandant of the camp, Oberst von Scherbach (Otto Preminger in one of his few appearances as an actor) addresses all the POWs—and shows what happens to POWs who try to escape.

Roll call over, the men go off to their daily routine. Gradually, as the scenes unfold, we see that Sefton enjoys certain privileges the others don’t. For instance, he’s the only one in the long line of men at the latrine sinks who has soap.
And, while the rest have to subsist on so-called ‘potato soup’ (the dregs of which are used, by the man who doles it out, to wash his socks)…

…Sefton fries an egg for himself.

Sefton, we discover, is the go-getter of the barracks. He is the man who’s always looking for a way to make life a little easier for himself, no matter how (though it does seem all above board, at least for now).
For example, Sefton has rigged up a ‘bar’. He, along with the rather timid Sergeant Harvey Cook ‘Cookie’ (Gil Stratton) uses discarded potato peels to brew a ghastly liquor. Ghastly it may be, but the men are more than willing to pay for it with the cigarettes they get as part of their Red Cross parcels.

Sefton is also the one who organises the ‘horse races’ (the ‘horses’ being mice, and the racetrack being a wooden contraption) in the barracks. There’s heavy betting, with Sefton being bookie, manager, organiser, breeder, handicap expert—and, invariably, raker-in of all the winnings. Again, cigarettes.

And Sefton has managed to get hold of a high-resolution lens and has got someone to craft a powerful ‘telescope’ out of it. You can’t see to the Swiss border with it, but you can certainly see right into the Russian women’s compound—and there are men queuing up for a 20-second peek through the lens, handing over cigarettes to Sefton (or his assistant, Cookie) in exchange.

So, yes: Sefton obviously has a nose for business, and he’s earning cigarettes left, right and centre. It’s these cigarettes that he uses to bribe the German soldiers to get him things: eggs, bottles of wine, other hard-to-find goodies. The other men resent it, and Sefton doesn’t really care what they think.

The American sergeants section has two men who’re designated to go around distributing the mail when it arrives. One of them has only one leg, and they use the empty part of his trouser leg to strap in things that can be surreptitiously moved from one barracks to another. This time, when Marko the Mailman (William Pearson) and his friend call at Barracks 4, the trouser leg yields a radio. The men at Barracks 4 can have it for a week before it has to be passed on to the next barracks.

The men rig up the radio—with a wire leading to one of the poles holding up a volleyball net outside—and are listening in on a frequency when the alarm is called: Sergeant Johann Sebastian Schulz (Sig Ruman) is coming!
Schulz is big and bluff, outwardly laughing and exchanging jokes with the Americans—especially Animal and Shapiro—and seems to be on such friendly terms with them that Duke even confronts him and asks how the Germans knew about the two men who’d tried to escape.

“You know everything that’s happening in this barracks,” says Duke. “Who’s tipping you off?” Schulz denies that anybody is tipping him off. And follows it up by ordering all the men out to ‘undig’ (his words) the tunnel they had dug.
And when Barracks 4 is empty, Schulz walks over to the table down the middle. A bulb is suspended over this, its string knotted into a loop. Schulz undoes the loop…

… and picks up the black queen from the chessboard lying on the table. He replaces the queen with an identical one he pulls out from his own pocket, and then he leaves.

So there is someone—a stool pigeon—inside Barracks 4, feeding the Germans information. Someone let them know of that planned escape, and now has passed on more information.

The men of Barracks 4 don’t know about the chessboard-and-bulb trick, of course, and life goes on.

Two new men arrive in the barracks: Sergeant Bagradian (Jay Lawrence), and Lieutenant Dunbar (Don Taylor), who’s been put here for a week until he can be transferred to officers’ accommodation. It soon turns out that Dunbar and Sefton know each other, and don’t like each other. They had joined up together, and Dunbar—according to Sefton, by using his family’s wealth—had been able to get into the officers’ cadre.

The other men of the barracks break up the quarrel that erupts between the two men, and Dunbar and Bagradian are welcomed to the barracks. Bagradian starts talking about what Dunbar had accomplished shortly before he was taken captive: the blowing up of a German ammunition train. Bagradian is proud of his boss, and even Dunbar, after some initial embarrassment, admits that was a job he’s glad to have pulled off.

Someone warns Bagradian and Dunbar to keep quiet—if the ‘stoolie’ in the barracks is within earshot, chances are the Germans will soon be informed of Dunbar’s sabotage.
But the damage has already been done. The next time Schulz visits Barracks 4, he confiscates their precious radio, and the men’s suspicions start building up.

One man is obviously rolling in wealth. One man here is the opportunist, the one who’ll not miss a chance to make some money. One man here is the misfit…

And when the commandant comes and has Dunbar hauled off to be kept in custody until he’s handed over to the SS, Barracks 4 is convinced. It is Sefton. Sefton is the stoolie, selling out his own countrymen, his colleagues, to the Germans. Almost before he knows it, they spring upon Sefton and thrash him black and blue, even though he keeps insisting he is not the man they’re looking for.

If Sefton isn’t the stoolie, who is? And even if they discover the man, what can they possibly do with him? Confront the Germans, and they’ll simply transfer the man to another stalag, to infiltrate POW ranks there. There seems no way out. In any case, except for Sefton, everybody believes that Sefton is guilty.

What I liked about this film:

Everything, really. Stalag 17 is one of those rare films that strike the magic balance between different genres perfectly. It’s a war film, yes, because it’s set during the war, in a POW camp. There is the reality of war—the sheer cold-blooded way in which men trying to escape are shot down, and the effect of battle on someone like Joey, who’s lost his wits to it.

On the other hand, there’s the beauty of human resilience: the charming, often humorous way, in which the prisoners of Stalag 17 manage to keep their heads up, keep themselves entertained, even attempt to enjoy themselves, through all the hardship they face. Sefton’s bar, the ‘horse races’, and the telescope trained on the Russian women’s barracks—and, more than that, the little Christmas tree they decorate (with their dog tags), and the Christmas party that’s organised, with dancing and all.

And, all the while, there’s the suspense. We, the audience, realise there’s a stoolie and discover how he’s communicating with the Germans fairly early on in the film. We even find out who it is much before Barracks 4 finds out. But even if we know who it is, how will they discover? And if and when they do, how will they deal with it?

William Holden, in one of his best roles. Well, actually his best role—he won his only Oscar for Best Actor for his role as JJ Sefton.

Oh, and this, a very infectious rendition of When Johnny comes marching home (warning: don’t watch this—though you can listen—if you haven’t already seen the film. The visual contains a major spoiler). This is a tune I’ve loved since I was pretty young (mostly because of a Hindi film clone), and the Stalag 17 rendition is my favourite.

What I didn’t like:

A scene where Shapiro and Animal concoct a plan to get out of their section and across, to where newly arrived Russian women soldiers are lining up to be deloused. It could’ve been a funny scene, but it’s a little prolonged and ends up (literally) with some slapstick that didn’t really appeal to me.

But I’m really not complaining. Stalag 17 is, for me, one of the best war films of the 50s. Simply superb.

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20 thoughts on “Stalag 17 (1953)

  1. Oh, I watched this so long ago!
    Even though I know the ending, and therefore should not feel the suspense, your review made me (almost) disappointed that you had not revealed the name of the traitor. That’s how good your review is!

    Now you’ve made me want to watch it again. Didn’t even know who the actors were, when I watched it the first time around. :)

    • Anu, you flatterer, you! :-D That’s sweet of you!

      I hadn’t seen Stalag 17 till just a few years back, and this film had me so completely hooked that I’d been meaning to rewatch it and review it almost from the day I started my blog. Just shows what a procrastinator I am, I guess… but, yum. What a film. I know of people who’ve said “War film? I don’t watch war films because of the violence” (and who are very happy to watch suspense film, murders and all – and to whom I’ve said, “This one’s actually more suspense than war.”

  2. Madhu, the original of Johnny comes marching home… was written by Louis Lambert during the American Civil War. This was a rousing war song, but the original, the Irish Johnny, I hardly knew ye was anti-war, and written about an Irish soldier who went to Sri Lanka to fight in the British Army. (You probably know that, history buff that you are.)

    It’s rather ironical, isn’t it, that an anti-war film should become pro-war when it crosses the pond? :)

    • Wow, Anu. Where do you get hold of these facts? I did know about Louis Lambert writing When Johnny comes marching home during the American Civil War, but I didn’t know about Johnny, I hardly knew ye. I actually managed to find a rendition of the original, which begins with the explanation you’ve provided.

      • I lived in the Cantonment area in Bangalore when I was a child, Madhu; my best friend had an Irish governess – well, ‘anglo-Indian’ was a catch-all term. She came from a family of soldiers, and she used to sing all these songs. That is when I heard the original. Then I heard the American version when I watched Stalag 17.

        By the way, ‘Louis Lambert’ was a pseudonym. He was an Irish-American called Patrick Gilmore. As for knowing facts, my head is stuffed with some really useless information. :)

        • As for knowing facts, my head is stuffed with some really useless information. :)

          But it’s not useless, see? You managed to educate me about something I hadn’t known! :-)

    • How odd. I even have a quick look at the spam – fortunately I never have too much – to make sure no legitimate comments have gone into the spam folder. But nothing from you there, Harvey. This is weird; did you, by any chance, clear your browsing history on your computer? The last time I did that on my system, all my comments on other WordPress blogs stopped appearing. :-(

      Please be a sweetie and comment again!

      • Most probably I jsut forgot to click on ‘post comment’ once again!
        The film sounds to be one of the best what Hollywood had to offer. What always strikes me most about Billy Wilder, is his variety. he has directed films of so many genres and also mixed them. But am I mistaken or does he play upon the theme of misunderstood persons, who are at times on the fringes of the society.

        After reading your review I would love to watch this film, but will have to wait till Nov to have some spare time!

        Thanks for the review Madhu, I had never ever heard of this film! .-)

        • I think one reason Billy Wilder appeals to me is that he didn’t restrict himself to one genre! When I look back at some of the Wilder films I’ve seen – this one, The Major and the Minor, Some Like it Hot, Ninotchka, Witness for the Prosecution, Hold Back the Dawn (which is one of my favourite romance films) – yes, he’s pretty versatile.

          I’m not sure he does play on the theme of the underdog or the one who’s misunderstood that much. But then, I’ve not seen a lot of Wilder’s films yet, so I could be wrong. If I examine the ones I have seen, though, I don’t really think so.

          Do put this on your November viewing list, Harvey – it’s a great film. I recommend it highly!

  3. As usual you go and create more problems for me, here I am desperately trying to find time and then without any pity for me you post a review and evoke my interest. I have seen a few of William Holden’s films, the two that stand out are The Bridge on the River Kwai and Fedora, the former left me depressed and the latter really shook me up.
    I just found this film on you tube will try to catch it, you are doing a great service unearthing these films for us. Thanks!

    • I remember, the first time I watched The Bridge on the River Kwai, I was a kid and I couldn’t reconcile myself to the way the film ended. I felt so depressed, I’ve only watched it once again since then – and I felt depressed all over again! Fedora isn’t one of my favourites either. There was just something about that film that didn’t appeal to me… also, possibly, because I watched that when I was too young to really appreciate what was going on in it.

      But Stalag 17… ah. Shilpi, I was actually thinking of you when I wrote this review, because I remembered you having mentioned once that you really like Where Eagles Dare. And I thought, “If Shilpi likes that, she’ll like this one too, I think!”

      Do try and make time for this one. :-)

  4. madhu ji,
    Thanks for this film’s review.
    This is one of the many films which I saw in the early 50s by bunking college.Though not an actual war film-its a war time film-Stalag 17 is a mirror of human emotions and nice characterisations.
    These type of films are rare nowadays,not for want of subject matters but for want of public demands.
    I read the other day that a Cow boy film released in US few months back.I am very keen to know the details.You have any idea ?
    -AD

    • Thank you, Arunji.

      Yes, I agree this isn’t a true-blue war film in the way Where Eagles Dare, The Longest Day or The Guns of Navarone are – in fact, I can well imagine this sort of story being set in any city prison, or even in a corporate setting (industrial espionage?). But somehow the POW camp setting was just perfect for it. Such a superb film.

      The most recent (pseudo)-Western I watched was the Daniel Craig starrer, Cowboys and Aliens. It’s actually science fiction, even though it’s set in the Wild West – I didn’t like it much because it was badly scripted, with too thin a plot and more action than anything else.

      Other than that, the only recent (2010) Western I’ve seen was True Grit, a remake of the John Wayne original. I did a review of the original film and compared it to the new one, so if you want, you can have a look at this:

      http://dustedoff.wordpress.com/2011/03/01/true-grit-1969/

      If you discover which Western was released a few months back, do let me know! That’s another genre I like.

  5. Hey Dustedoff, sorry for not replying to your comment. I got grounded for a week ‘cos I was staying up late to write posts for something I’m gonna do for Dev’s birthday. So yeah. I did sneak on to listen to YouTube, but most of that time went to writing posts. I’m still behind though. I only have two posts done, writing the third one now, and argh, I have so many reviews to write.

    Have you seen Prem Pujari? I miiiiiiight just watch it. But I’m kinda put off by the way Dev directs stuff. Hare Rama Hare Krishna was… oh… my…. God. Yes. That sums it up. I did get excited in “Shokhiyon Mein Ghola Jaye” when Dev hugs Waheeda! Awesomeness! (And I do believe that at some point in the movie he has a GUN! YAAYAYAYAYAYAYAY! Yeah, I like it when Dev gets his hands on a gun. :D )

    Anyway. You guys are talking about old Westerns? A few months back I told my friend, “Hey, you know how your roleplay cats are always political heroes and I don’t know, kind of domineering? You remind me of the actor [I'm referring to Prithviraj Kapoor] that played the king in Mughal-E-Azam. :P Were you by any chance watching it?” He told me, “Watch Old Westerns, you’ll find more similarities.”

    • All those posts you mention makes me suspect you’re going to be doing a Dev Anand festival on your blog for his birthday! Am I right? Looking forward to whatever you’re up to. :-)

      Yup, I’ve seen Prem Pujari. It’s not as bad as most of Dev Anand’s later films, but it gets pretty incoherent and far-fetched after a while. What I did like were the songs – they were lovely, especially Phoolon ke rang se.

      LOL about your pal’s recommendation re: old Westerns. Yes, loads of domineering people there… and loads, not.

      • Yes yes, something like that! I can’t tell you anything else ‘cos I don’t want to spoil the surprise! :D It’s sort of bittersweet this year though… last year I actually drew a hat for him and sent him a Tweet. :)

        Oh yeaaaaaahhhhh (I feel like stretching my words today!), Dev on a bus full of European kids. :P Well I honestly should watch it to find out what being court-marshalled is – my friend’s threatened to do THAT to me. I retorted, “Unless I’m Arun Verma from Aradhana, you can’t court-marshal me. :P But oh God it’d be fun to be Arun… um… not being killed of course… but to sing songs in Kishore’s voice! And Rajesh! -faints- :D” My friend sighed and replied, “Talking to you is absolutely useless.”

        Really? Just like Prithviraj Kapoor? I was watching this program called Into The West, and either I had been drinking bhang, or the main actor looked a LOT like Shashi. Really.

        • Court martial, sweetheart, not court marshal – the ‘martial’ (derived from Mars, the Roman God of War) refers to the military – a court martial is a military court, and tries only crimes related to the military – e.g, desertion.

          Not just like Prithviraj Kapoor. But you might find some characters pretty similar to him. ;-)

  6. I know I have to see that one. I’m a Billy wilder buff for one, and I had the VCR upstairs waiting for me for goodness knows how long, and when the VCR changed to DVD, there has been a DVD!! So now there’s DO shaming me!!

    • You remind me of myself, Yves! There’s a whole bunch of films that I ended up buying (or occasionally recording from TV) when we had a VCR. Then, when VCDs came (and for a long time, we had only VCDs in India, no DVDs), I bought their VCDs. Then, the DVDs – though I must admit I’ve never been able to achieve this feat of owning a film for so long and never having seen it! ;-)

      Do watch – if you like Billy Wilder, I think you’ll like this one too. It’s fantastic.

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