Stalag 17

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Stalag 17
Stalag 17.jpeg
Directed byBilly Wilder
Screenplay byEdwin Blum
Billy Wilder
Based on
Produced byBilly Wilder
StarringWilliam Holden
Don Taylor
Otto Preminger
Narrated byGil Stratton
CinematographyErnest Laszlo
Edited byGeorge Tomasini
Music byFranz Waxman
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • May 29, 1953 (1953-05-29) (UK)
  • July 1, 1953 (1953-07-01) (US)
Running time
120 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$10,000,000

Stalag 17 is a 1953 American drama war film which tells the story of a group of American airmen, confined with 40,000 prisoners in a World War II German prisoner of war camp “somewhere on the Danube”. Their compound holds holds 630 Sergeants representing many different air crew positions, but the film focuses on one particular barracks, where the men come to suspect that one of their number is an informant. The film was directed and produced by Billy Wilder who, with Edwin Blum, adapted the screenplay from the Broadway play of the same name. The play was written by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, based on their experiences as prisoners in Stalag 17B in Austria.

The film stars William Holden in an Oscar-winning performance, along with Don Taylor, Robert Strauss, Harvey Lembeck, Peter Graves, Neville Brand, Richard Erdman, Sig Ruman, and Otto Preminger. Strauss and Lembeck appeared in the original Broadway production.


Narrator Clarence Harvey "Cookie" Cook recalls life in Barracks 4 in a Luftwaffe prisoner-of-war camp compound holding 630 sergeants from American flight crews.

On the longest night of the year, in December 1944, Manfredi and Johnson are shot trying to escape. The men believe they were betrayed. Security chief Price is stumped.

Suspicion falls on J. J. Sefton, an enterprising cynic who barters openly with the German guards for cigarettes, eggs, silk stockings, blankets and other luxuries. He also organizes rat races, a distillery, a telescope to spy on the Russian women, and various other profitable ventures. Cookie is his sidekick.

Commandant Oberst [Colonel] von Scherbach displays the bodies in the mud and announces punishments. When a rock splashes mud on his boots, everyone confesses. He decrees delousing with ice water.

The men of Barracks 4 do their best to keep sane, defying the conditions in which they live. Their guard, Feldwebel Schulz, professes sympathy with his charges. Comic relief comes from teasing Schulz, the byplay between Animal Kuzawa and Harry Shapiro, and black humor such as a soldier washing his socks in the watery breakfast soup and a wife writing to say she has adopted an abandoned baby. A clandestine radio, smuggled in the trouser leg of an amputee, picks up the war news over an antenna hidden in a volleyball net.

Animal becomes deeply depressed when Betty Grable marries bandleader Harry James. Shapiro promises a trip to the Russian women's compound. Painting a stripe on the dirt road, they reach the delousing station—for a moment.

Just before Christmas, a Lieutenant Dunbar is assigned to Barracks 4 until he can be sent to an officers' camp. Sgt. Bagradian reveals that Dunbar rigged a time bomb in transit and blew up a munitions train.

Schulz announces an inspection by the “Geneva Man,” which means clean blankets—temporarily. Schulz also confiscates the radio—another victory for the stoolie. While the blankets are distributed, Schulz replaces a chesspiece and straightens the light cord:

Sefton bribes the guards to let him spend the day with the Russian women. Concluding that this is his reward for betraying the radio, the men confront him. Von Scherbach interrupts to arrest Dunbar as a saboteur. The men blame Sefton and beat him, brutally..

The Geneva Man arrives with gifts—including 2,000 ping-pong balls. He is not fooled by the blankets. Hoffy asks about Dunbar. The Geneva Man warns Von Scherbach that Dunbar is not a saboteur unless there is proof; there will be war crimes trials.

Von Scherbach hands Schulz the chesspiece.

The camera moves from the black queen and the looped cord to the men, singing “Jingle Bells”. Some are making smudge pots from the ping-pong balls. Animal leads them, singing “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”. Price exchanges chesspieces, pulls down the cord and joins the marching men. Sefton sees the shadow of the swinging bulb.

Price gets Bagradian to tell him the secret of the time-bomb—a lit cigarette tucked in a matchbook.

An air raid interrupts the Christmas Eve celebration. Sefton hides and overhears Price explaining the time-bomb to Schulz—in German.

He has a problem: Expose the spy and the Germans will use him elsewhere. Kill him, and the entire barracks dies.

On Christmas Day, the SS come for Dunbar. While Price impatiently guards Sefton, the smudge pots create a diversion. Dunbar hides in the water tower. Only Hoffy knows where he is. After von Scherbach threatens to raze the camp, the men decide that one of them must get Dunbar out. Price volunteers, and Sefton accuses him of being a spy, asking, "When was Pearl Harbor?" Price knows the date, but when Sefton asks what time, Price retorts: “6 p.m. I was eating dinner.” It was 6 pm in Berlin. Sefton reveals the mailbox; Price bolts and is restrained.

Liking the odds, Sefton decides to rescue Dunbar. He salutes the barracks as he leaves. He retrieves the Lieutenant, and the men throw Price out the door with cans tied to his legs. He dies in a hail of bullets. Sefton and Dunbar escape. Lying in his bunk, Cookie whistles "When Johnny Comes Marching Home".



Original Broadway production[edit]

The film was adapted by Wilder and Edwin Blum from the Broadway play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, which was based on their experiences as prisoners in Stalag 17B in Austria. Trzcinski appears in the film as a prisoner.

The play was directed by José Ferrer and was the Broadway debut of John Ericson, as Sefton. It was presented first at the Edwin Burke Memorial Theater of The Lambs, a theatrical club, on March 11, 1951 (staged by the authors). It began its Broadway run in May 1951 and continued for 472 performances. The Sefton character was loosely based on Joe Palazzo, a flier in Trzcinski's prisoner-of-war barracks. The script was rewritten extensively by Wilder and Blum.


Both Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas were considered for the role of Sefton.[1]


The prison camp set was built on the John Show Ranch in Woodland Hills, on the southwestern edge of the San Fernando Valley.[2] The shoot began in February 1952, during the rainy season in California, providing plenty of mud for the camp compound.[3] It is now the location of a meetinghouse of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Filming and release[edit]

The film was shot in chronological order, an unusual practice because that method is usually much more expensive and time-consuming. In a featurette released later, members of the cast said that they themselves did not know the identity of the informant until the last three days of shooting.

Peter Graves recalled that the film was held back from release for over a year because Paramount Pictures did not believe that anyone would be interested in seeing a film about prisoners of war. The 1953 release of American POWs from the Korean War led Paramount to release it on an exploitation angle.[4]


Box office[edit]

By January 1954, Stalag 17 had earned $3.3 million in theatrical rentals in the United States and Canada.[5]

Critical reaction[edit]

Bosley Crowther praised the film, calling it "cracker jack movie entertainment". He praised Wilder and Edwin Blum for having improved the play, and applauded William Holden's performance.[6] Harrison's Reports wrote, "Thanks to the brilliant handling of the subject matter by producer-director Billy Wilder, and to the fine acting of the entire cast, the picture has been fashioned into a first-rate entertainment".[7] William Brogdon of Variety felt "The raucous flavor will set well with male viewers and even the distaffers should find it acceptable entertainment most of the time. William Holden's name heads the good cast...although the lengthy two-hour running time makes for a booking awkwardness when it reaches the regular dual-bill situations in the general runs."[8] Philip K. Scheuer of the Los Angeles Times wrote Wilder "preserved [the] essential humor and tragedy with no dulling of its corrosive edges, though he has cleaned it up in both language and situations. Lustiness has pretty much replaced bawdiness, and while the fun may not yet be all in the "good clean" class, it is at least expressed in the accepted and more palatable Hollywood medium of hard-boiled comedy."[9]

More recently, film critic James Berardinelli stated that "among the 20th century directors, few were more versatile than Billy Wilder".[10] The film currently has a 97% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 37 reviews, with an average rating of 8.40/10. The website's consensus states: "Stalag 17 survives the jump from stage to screen with flying colors, thanks to Billy Wilder's typically sterling direction and a darkly funny script."[11]

Awards and nominations[edit]

William Holden won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. His acceptance speech is one of the shortest on record ("thank you, thank you"); the TV broadcast had a strict cutoff time which forced Holden's quick remarks. The frustrated Holden personally paid for advertisements in the Hollywood trade publications to thank everyone he wanted to on Oscar night. He also remarked that he felt that either Burt Lancaster or Montgomery Clift should have won the Best Actor Oscar for From Here to Eternity instead of him. It is said that he felt he was given the award as consolation for not having previously won it for Sunset Boulevard.[citation needed]

Award Category Nominee(s) Result Ref.
Academy Awards Best Director Billy Wilder Nominated [12]
Best Actor William Holden Won
Best Supporting Actor Robert Strauss Nominated
Directors Guild of America Awards Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Billy Wilder Nominated [14]
National Board of Review Awards Top Ten Films 7th Place [15]
New York Film Critics Circle Awards Best Actor William Holden Nominated [16]
Writers Guild of America Awards Best Written American Comedy Billy Wilder and Edwin Blum Nominated [17]

In popular culture[edit]

  • The television series Hogan's Heroes (CBS, 1965–71) is based on a similar Stalag.
  • "Stalag 17" is a 1973 reggae riddim, composed by Ansell Collins and named after the film.
  • The episode "Did You See The Sunrise?" (1982), of the television series Magnum, P.I., opens with Stalag 17 playing on the TV, as the main character, Thomas Magnum, is watching and remembering his childhood, and the enjoyment he had with the movie, only to grow up and experience his own wartime imprisonment.
  • An uncredited William Holden reprised the character of a cigar-chewing POW in the 1979 war movie Escape to Athena. Since he is seen only briefly, it can be presumed that "Sefton" made another successful escape while no one was looking.
  • Richard Erdman, who plays Hoffy in Stalag 17, guest-starred in Hogan's Heroes, a late 60's television show based on a German Stalag - in this case Stalag 13. He played Walter Hobson a reporter, who with Hogan's crew is freed in an episode entitled "No Names Please". He is the only star of the movie to have guest starred on Hogan's Heroes.
  • The film is parodied in the Ripping Yarns episode "Escape from Stalag Luft 112B" (1977).


  1. ^ Capua, Michelangelo (9 October 2009). William Holden: A Biography. McFarland. p. 65. ISBN 978-0-7864-5550-8.
  2. ^ Rowan, Terry (2012). World War II Goes to the Movies & Television Guide. p. 443. ISBN 978-1-105-58602-6.
  3. ^ Phillips, Gene (5 February 2010). Some Like It Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder. University Press of Kentucky. p. 163. ISBN 978-0-8131-7367-2.
  4. ^ Weaver, Tom (2005). "Peter Graves Interview". Earth Vs. the Sci-fi Filmmakers: 20 Interviews. McFarland & Company. p. 146. ISBN 978-0-786-42210-4.
  5. ^ "Top Grossers of 1953". Variety. January 13, 1954. p. 10. Retrieved July 16, 2021 – via Internet Archive.
  6. ^ Crowther, Bosley (July 2, 1953). "Two New Films Arrive; 'Stalag 17' Emerges as Taut Film With William Holden -- Has Bow at Astor". New York Times. Retrieved August 24, 2016.
  7. ^ "'Stalag 17' with William Holden, Don Taylor and Otto Preminger". Harrison's Reports. May 9, 1953. p. 75. Retrieved July 16, 2021 – via Internet Archive.
  8. ^ Brogdon, William (May 6, 1953). "Film Reviews: Stalag 17". Variety. p. 6. Retrieved July 16, 2021 – via Internet Archive.
  9. ^ Scheuer, Philip K. (July 16, 1953). "Prison Camp Types Liven 'Stalag 17'". Los Angeles Times. Part III, p. 8. Retrieved July 16, 2021 – via open access
  10. ^ Berardinelli, James. "Stalag 17". ReelViews. Retrieved July 8, 2017.
  11. ^ "Stalag 17 (1953)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved November 2, 2014.
  12. ^ "The 26th Academy Awards (1954) Nominees and Winners". (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences). Archived from the original on July 6, 2011. Retrieved May 31, 2015.
  13. ^ Holsinger, M. Paul (1999). War and American Popular Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 310. ISBN 978-0-313-29908-7.
  14. ^ "6th DGA Awards". Directors Guild of America Awards. Retrieved July 5, 2021.
  15. ^ "1953 Award Winners". National Board of Review. Retrieved July 5, 2021.
  16. ^ "1953 New York Film Critics Circle Awards". Mubi. Retrieved July 5, 2021.
  17. ^ "wga awards". Archived from the original on 2012-12-05. Retrieved 2010-06-06.

External links[edit]