Stalag 17

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Stalag 17
Stalag 17.jpeg
Theatrical re-release poster
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 dates
  • May 29, 1953 (1953-05-29) (UK)
  • June 6, 1953 (1953-06-06) (US)
Running time
120 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$10,000,000

Stalag 17 is a 1953 American 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 630 Sergeants representing many different air crew positions, but the film focuses on one particular barrack, 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, Michael Moore, Sig Ruman, and Otto Preminger. Strauss and Lembeck appeared in the original Broadway production.


In a German prisoner-of-war camp named Stalag 17, one of its compounds holds 630 American airmen (all of whom are [[sergeant) and is overseen by camp warden Oberst von Scherbach.

In December 1944, the men of Barracks 4—led by appointed barracks chief "Hoffy" Hoffman and security officer Frank Price—arrange for the escape of fellow airmen Manfredi and Johnson. The pair are shot dead in the attempt, and the men believe they were betrayed by an informant. Suspicion falls on J.J. Sefton, an enterprising cynic who barters openly with the German guards for various luxuries. He also creates profitable ventures that distract from the mundanity of camp life: from organizing rat races for gambling, to an improvised distillery for brewing alcohol, to a makeshift telescope to spy on the Russian women from a neighboring compound. Clarence "Cookie" Cook, who narrates the story, serves as Sefton's underling.

The men of Barracks 4 do their best to keep sane, which includes enduring the antics of barracks clowns "Animal" Kuzawa and Harry Shapiro and smuggling in a radio to listen in on war news. Their jovial supervisor, Feldwebel Schulz, secretly retrieves hidden messages from a hollow black queen on the chessboard, and straightens the looped cord of a dangling light bulb, which serves as a signal between himself and the informant. Just before Christmas, a recently captured Lieutenant Dunbar is assigned to Barracks 4 until he can be sent to an officer's camp. Sgt. Bagradian, who accompanies Dunbar, reveals that Dunbar rigged a time bomb in transit and blew up a munitions train. Sefton recognizes Dunbar from officers school and believes that he only passed because of his rich family, creating tension between them.

Schulz announces that an inspector from the Geneva Convention will arrive, and Sefton bribes the guards to let him spend the day with the Russian women. The radio is later confiscated by Schulz. Concluding that Sefton was rewarded for revealing the radio, the men confront him when he returns, but Sefton denies he was responsible. Von Scherbach interrupts to arrest Dunbar as a saboteur; the men blame Sefton again and brutally beat him.

The next day, the inspector from Geneva arrives with Red Cross parcels—including 2,000 ping-pong balls, which the prisoners use to create smoke bombs. The inspector is then told about Dunbar, and he warns von Scherbach that Dunbar cannot be convicted without proof, lest there be war crime trials. Von Scherbach hands Schulz a black queen to be delivered to the informant. During the Christmas Eve celebrations, Price stealthily switches out the black queen, reads the hidden message, and then resets the signal. Sefton, recovering from his beating, notices the signal afterwards and becomes suspicious. Price gets Bagradian to reveal the recipe of Dunbar's time bomb: a lit cigarette tucked into a matchbook. That night, an air raid siren forces the men to evacuate. Sefton hides and witnesses Price speaking German to Schulz and demonstrating the time bomb as evidence against Dunbar.

On Christmas Day, the SS arrive to take Dunbar to Berlin. While Hoffy has Price guard Sefton (who is still believed to be the informant), he gathers the men to rescue Dunbar. A riot and an ignited smoke bomb distract the guards, and Dunbar is taken to hide in a latrine's water tower until nightfall. After von Scherbach threatens to raze the camp, the men of Barracks 4 decide that one of them must help Dunbar escape. Price volunteers, and Sefton finally accuses him of being a German spy. Sefton interrogates Price and reveals the messaging system he used; the men are convinced and Price tries to flee, but he is quickly restrained.

Anticipating a generous reward, Sefton decides to rescue Dunbar. He retrieves the Lieutenant, and the prisoners throw Price out of the barracks with cans tied to his leg. Price attracts the spotlights of every guard tower and is gunned down; Sefton and Dunbar escape amidst the chaos. The prisoners return to their bunks, and 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.[2]


The prison camp set was built on the John Show Ranch in Woodland Hills, on the southwestern edge of the San Fernando Valley.[3] The shoot began in February 1952, during the rainy season in California, providing plenty of mud for the camp compound.[4] 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.[5]


Box office[edit]

By January 1954, Stalag 17 had earned $3.3 million in theatrical rentals in the United States and Canada.[6]

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.[7] 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".[8] 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."[9] 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."[10]

In 2006, film critic James Berardinelli stated that "among the 20th century directors, few were more versatile than Billy Wilder".[11] On Rotten Tomatoes the film has a 91% rating based on 74 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."[12] On Metacritic it has a score of 84% based on reviews from 15 critics.[13]


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 [14]
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 [16]
National Board of Review Awards Top Ten Films 7th Place [17]
New York Film Critics Circle Awards Best Actor William Holden Nominated [18]
Writers Guild of America Awards Best Written American Comedy Billy Wilder and Edwin Blum Nominated [19]

In popular culture[edit]

  • The television series Hogan's Heroes (CBS, 1965–71) is based on a similar Stalag. Richard Erdman, who played Hoffy in Stalag 17, guest-starred on Hogan's Heroes as Walter Hobson, a reporter who, with Hogan's crew, is freed in the episode "No Names Please". Erdman is the only star of the movie to have guest starred on Hogan's Heroes.
  • "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.
  • The film is parodied in the Ripping Yarns episode "Escape from Stalag Luft 112B" (1977).
  • In The Penguins of Madagascar, two penguins named Manfredi and Johnson are referenced throughout the show, typically for the nature of their demise or a mistake they made. They actually appear alive in "The Penguin who Loved Me".[20]
  • In Season 3 of NYPD Blue episodes entitled Torah! Torah! Torah!, Stalag 17 was mentioned.


  1. ^ "Joe Ploski". British Film Institute. Retrieved September 11, 2022.
  2. ^ Capua, Michelangelo (October 9, 2009). William Holden: A Biography. McFarland. p. 65. ISBN 978-0-7864-5550-8.
  3. ^ Rowan, Terry (2012). World War II Goes to the Movies & Television Guide. p. 443. ISBN 978-1-105-58602-6.
  4. ^ Phillips, Gene (February 5, 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.
  5. ^ Weaver, Tom (2005). "Peter Graves Interview". Earth Vs. the Sci-fi Filmmakers: 20 Interviews. McFarland & Company. p. 146. ISBN 978-0-786-42210-4.
  6. ^ "Top Grossers of 1953". Variety. January 13, 1954. p. 10. Retrieved July 16, 2021 – via Internet Archive.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ "'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.
  9. ^ Brogdon, William (May 6, 1953). "Film Reviews: Stalag 17". Variety. p. 6. Retrieved July 16, 2021 – via Internet Archive.
  10. ^ 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
  11. ^ Berardinelli, James. "Stalag 17". ReelViews. Retrieved July 8, 2017.
  12. ^ "Stalag 17 (1953)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved November 4, 2022.
  13. ^ "Stalag 17". Metacritic.
  14. ^ "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.
  15. ^ Holsinger, M. Paul (1999). War and American Popular Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 310. ISBN 978-0-313-29908-7.
  16. ^ "6th DGA Awards". Directors Guild of America Awards. Retrieved July 5, 2021.
  17. ^ "1953 Award Winners". National Board of Review. Retrieved July 5, 2021.
  18. ^ "1953 New York Film Critics Circle Awards". Mubi. Retrieved July 5, 2021.
  19. ^ "wga awards". Archived from the original on December 5, 2012. Retrieved June 6, 2010.
  20. ^ Manfredi and Johnson compilation (The Penguins of Madagascar). YouTube. Archived from the original on December 11, 2021.

External links[edit]