Sunday, November 24, 2019

There's a Spy in Stalag 17

William Holden as Sefton.
Considering it was made by one of Hollywood's most versatile directors, it's no surprise that Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 flows back and forth effortlessly between drama and comedy. Set in a German prisoner of war camp during World War II, the dramatic storyline focuses on a barracks in the midst of a streak of bad luck. The camp's commandant seems to know everything that happens among the prisoners--culminating in an ill-fated escape in which two American soldiers are gunned down.

The barracks' residents conclude there must be an informant hiding among them and their chief suspect is a wheeler-dealer named Sefton (William Holden). Sefton is determined to make his stay in Stalag 17 as comfortable as possible. He barters with his German captors and profits off his fellow prisoners by running gambling games (e.g., mice races) and selling moonshine (from his own still). None of his fellow soldiers like Sefton, except for the quiet Cookie, who functions as his assistant (and also serves as the film's narrator).

Convinced that Sefton is the barracks' spy, his fellow prisoners beat him severely. Proclaiming his innocence, Sefton warns the others that he will uncover the informant and seek retribution.

Made in 1953, Stalag 17 was based on the 1951 stage play written by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, who both spent time in a World War II prisoner of war camp. Jose Ferrer directed the stage version, which starred John Ericson (in his Broadway debut) as Sefton. Two members of the supporting cast, Harvey Lembeck and Robert Strauss, repeated their roles for the film version.

Harvey Lembeck and Robert Strauss.
Lembeck and Strauss provide most of the film's comedic scenes. Strauss portrays Stanislas "Animal" Kuzawa, whose obsession with Betty Grable leaves him perpetually depressed (except when there's an opportunity to spy on Russian female prisoners). Shapiro tries keep up his buddy's morale, although he's self-centered enough to let Animal think letters from a creditor are from Shapiro's lady admirers back home. Both roles border on stereotypes, so it's a credit to Strauss and especially Lembeck that they make these characters believable and amusing. Strauss earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Holden with Gil Stratton
as "Cookie."
Billy Wilder always brought out the best in William Holden, who gives a gritty performance as Sefton, There's no attempt to whitewash the character. Sefton's only explanation for his opportunist ways is that within a week of his arrival at Stalag 17, his Red Cross package, blanket, and left shoe were stolen. Sefton is a loner; he has no friends and no interest in making them. He isn't even particularly nice to Cookie, though he prefers him to the other barracks residents. Holden won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance, though supposedly he thought it was atonement for not winning in 1951 for Sunset Boulevard (ironically Jose Ferrer won that year for Cyrano de Bergerac).

Having seen Stalag 17 multiple times, the most interesting element this time around was the group dynamics. Fueled by guilt over their comrades' deaths, the barracks residents need to uncover the informant. Therefore, they hone in on the person they don't like. There is no evidence against Sefton--other than he already barters with their German captors (which would be stupid for an informant). The barracks' leader doesn't even give Sefton an opportunity to defend himself in a mock trial. A sort of mob mentality takes over, with Sefton branded as guilty and duly punished. (For this reason, Sefton's very last interaction with his fellow soldiers, near the end of the film, doesn't ring true.)

Peter Grave as a prisoner.
Many members of the supporting cast went on to greater fame. Peter Graves worked steadily in film and television before becoming a star with Mission: Impossible and later Airplane! Harvey Lembeck played Phil Silvers' sidekick on the popular Phil Silvers Show (Sgt. Bilko) and later portrayed Eric Von Zipper in several Beach Party movies. Neville Brand played heavies in many films and TV shows before becoming a good guy in the TV series Laredo. And Stalag 17 playwright Donald Bevan gained additional fame as one of Sardi's in-house caricaturists for many years.

Finally, less we forget, the TV series Hogan's Heroes borrowed liberally from Stalag 17, although the tone was decidedly different. Indeed, Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski tried to sue the show's makers, but their lawsuit was unsuccessful.

Here's a scene from Stalag 17, courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube Channel:


  1. Gil Stratton was a mainstay on local L.A. TV in the '60s, reporting sports news (no mice races). It was a shock to see him act in this movie, but he was very good. I would have loved to see this staged as a play. One of my favorite war films (though I agree that Sefton's final gesture was out of sync with what came before).

    At ease.

    1. That's interesting! Gil Stratton is indeed quite good in STALAG 17.

    2. I don't know what it was about "retired" actors and Los Angeles TV stations back then, but along with Gil Stratton, Dick Lane was another actor who did a lot of character work in the movies and radio early on (the "Boston Blackie" series), then switched to TV announcing.

      In Lane's case, he ended up calling professional wrestling and roller derby matches here for KTLA in the '50s and '60s -- and was very good at it.

      It wasn't until much later that I discovered these gentlemen had earlier careers in film. I'm sure there must be others as well.

    3. The first time I saw Stalag 17 (on TV sometime in the 60's) I kept thinking I know this guy's (Cookie) voice. It finally dawned on me it was Gil Stratton, who at the time, was the lead CBS voice on West Coast NFL games. Now when I watch the movie, I tend to watch Stratton as much as possible.

  2. Otto Preminger chewed out Wilder on the Stalag set. Asked why he took that from an actor, Wilder said "I have to. I still have relatives in Germany."

  3. A few months back the hubby added a Canadian classic movie channel to our cable package because I commented that they were about to show Stalag 17. "Don't say I never did nothin' for youse," he said.

  4. Some of those great ensemble players in Stalag 17 that you somehow forgot to mention:

    - Co-playwright Donald Bevan was one of the two escapees who got gunned down at the start.
    - The other co-playwright, Edmund Trzcinski, was the POW who got the long-delayed letter from his wife, telling him about their newly-arrived baby ("I believe it! I believe it!")
    - At the Christmas dance, that was Ross Bagdasarian (pre-Alvin and the Chipmunks) singing "I Love You."
    - When future director Don Taylor arrived at the compound, he was accompanied by Jay Lawrence (brother of Larry Storch) with his many vocal impressions.
    - The guy delivering the mail ("AT EASE!!! AT EASE!!!") was William Pierson, who twenty years afterwards was every bit at grating as John Ritter's boss on Three's Company.
    - And of course Sig Rumann and Neville Brand …
    - ... but really, how did you miss the great Richard Erdman as Barracks Chief Hoffy?
    Here's a guy who stayed in acting harness well into his 90s on Community; many (like me) think that his underplaying in Stalag 17 was the best acting in the movie.

    "All right … everybody back in their bunks … like nothing happened …"

    If I missed anybody (and I probably did), feel free to pile on.

    1. Too many folks to mention and keep the review to a reasonable length, so thanks for highlighting them. I just watched Richard Erdman in Disney's The Swamp Fox!

  5. Like you said, Holden brings no sentimentality to the role, which is what his character and the film needs. He's compelling – I almost can't take my eyes off him.

  6. watching it i had a feeling hogan's heroes was somehow based on this. the Schultz character for instance. plus the commandant has never had an escape and a perfect record. klink in a sense.

  7. one of my fav movies....and its a real shame most, if not all, of the cast are no longer with us.....