Stalag 17 (1953) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Christmas Mystery

Stalag-17-French-posterNow, I know what you’re thinking – isn’t this the Oscar-winning war movie starring William Holden, the one that got ripped off and turned into that silly 1960s sitcom, Hogan’s Heroes? Wasn’t this film a big hit in its day? How can it thus be considered overlooked – and what’s so Christmassy about it? And also, who in their right mind would ever consider it as belonging to the crime genre – it’s a prison escape drama, right? Well, I realise that this classic POW movie, adapted by writer-director Billy Wilder from a Broadway hit, may not be everybody’s idea of either a mystery or a Yuletide classic but I think I can make a pretty good case. We begin the week before Christmas in 1944 and things are bad …

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected. It is my last such offering for 2012 but hope to see you soon early next year.

“I don’t know about you but it always makes me sore seeing those war pictures, all about flying leathernecks, and submarine patrols, and frogmen, and guerillas in the Philippines. What gets me is that there never was a movie about P.O.W.s … I spent two and a half years in Stalag 17 … There was more fireworks shooting off around that joint – take for instance the story about the spy we had in our barracks”

The story is narrated by ‘Cookie’ (played by Gil Stratton), one of 630 American flyers (all sergeants) held in a POW camp in Germany not far from the Danube – he is also a character original in the film and not found in the original play, which was mostly stripped of its dialogue with only the plot and main characters left intact. ‘Cookie’ is also the best friend of JJ Sefton (Holden), a scrounger who manages to turn everything into an opportunity (for himself). If you need cigarettes or a knife or even an egg, Sefton is your man – he is thus a necessity, but one who is barely tolerated. He has no wish to escape or win the war – he merely intends to survive it. In this respect, the character is a clear forerunner of ‘King Rat’, the eponymous anti-hero of James Clavell’s 1962 novel was set in Changi Prison and which was, from the outset, not a story of escape but of survival. That was a particularly dark and dour story but Stalag 17, while undeniably cynical and on occasional even brutal, is leavened by some quite broad humour courtesy of Robert Strauss as the lovelorn ‘Animal’ (he’s obsessed with Betty Grable) and his buddy Harry Shapiro played by Harvey Lembeck, reprising their performances from the original stage production. It is their antics that largely allowed the film to be marketed as a comedy though really they are just the light relief along with Sig Rumann’s Nazi sergeant Schultz, who is also largely played largely for laughs – well, until we realise  that there really is a spy among them men, the signal for a secret message given when a loop is tied in a light cord above the chess board. This is only revealed some 35 minutes into the film and will then become the focus for the next hour or so as we try to find out who it is who is passing on all the POWs’ secret plans to the Nazis.


The structure of the film, which was apparently shot largely in sequence and modified quite considerably from the play, is quite close to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with Sefton as a kind of Scrooge. We see his past in flashbacks showing his various activities as a hustler in the camp, despised but crucial to the economy of the men’s lives; then there is the present in which everything turns sour as escape plans are foiled and lead to death despair with Sefton eventually blamed even though there is no real evidence that he is the traitor. The angriest of all his accusers is ‘Duke’, played by real-life war hero Neville Brand who became a fine character actor in dozens of movies. They exact a terrible revenge, beating Sefton within an inch of his life and stealing all his ‘stock’. He now has a vested interest in uncovering the real spy … What will his future hold? I don’t want to over-emphasise the similarities in tone, but merely to point to Wilder’s smart use of Dickens’ well-established structure for his movie to help keep the theme universal.

“I understand how you feel – sort of rough. One American squealing on other Americans. Then again Cookie, maybe that stoolie’s not an American at all, maybe he’s a German the krauts planted in this barracks. They do that sometimes, just put an agent in with us, a trained specialist. A lot of loose information floating around …”

Originally staged just 6 years after the end of the Second World War, Wilder allegedly ended up buying the rights to the play with his own money ($50,000) as no one could see its commercial potential despite it being a Broadway hit that ultimately ran for 472 performances. Wilder, in collaboration with Edwin Blum, reshaped the story and changed the main character – originally fashioned for Charlton Heston, Wilder made the character increasingly bitter and sardonic, much more suitable for William Holden who had played a similar character in Wilder’s previous hit, Sunset Boulevard (1950) and who would refine the character in later films such as Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). He is exceptional in a very difficult role, making such a dark character sympathetic and certainly deserved the recognition he received from the Academy when he got an Oscar for the film.

STALAG 17, Robert Strauss, William Holden, Harvey Lembeck, 1953

Franz Waxman’s music score is quite minimalist, mainly variations of ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again’, but is well in keeping with the bare look of the film, as befits the realistic subject matter. Having said that, many of the most memorable moments are both sad and comedic, such as the Christmas party in which all the men dance with each other and ‘Animal’ mistakes Shapiro for Betty Grable. it’s hard to believe, but at the time this was considered quite controversial for its sexual undertones, though ‘Animal’s sadness when he realise he hasn’t been dancing with Betty Grable, is as sad as it is ridiculous, borne of desperation and loneliness. Other roles are also played quite broadly and Otto Preminger certainly has a great time playing a sort of mean caricature of Santa, giving presents in time for a visit by the inspectors from Geneva but then taking it all away again. Preminger was already well-established at a caricature of the Teutonic Hollywood director, screaming at his actors and browbeating them into submission – but he had started out as an actor in Austria but being a Jew soon left for America and had played Nazis in Hollywood movies several times including the Bob Hope comedy thriller, They Got Me Covered (1943). He’s great here as the villain of the piece, very easy to hate as the sense of jeopardy is ever-present. Thus the film works on many levels though its never forgets the mystery element – Along with the eventual unmasking of who the traitor is, there are many other teasing puzzles – such as how a lieutenant was able to create a homemade time bomb while in custody and how he is then able to vanish from the camp under the Nazi’s guard.

When Johnny comes marching home again
Hurrah! Hurrah!
We’ll give him a hearty welcome then
Hurrah! Hurrah!
The men will cheer and the boys will shout
The ladies they will all turn out
And we’ll all feel gay
When Johnny comes marching home.

The influence of this successful combination of theatrical intimacy, comic camaraderie and mystery plot and even the Christmas atmosphere, are well in evidence in subsequent POW films. Notable examples include Don Chaffey’s The Danger Within from 1959 (from the novel ‘Death in Captivity’ by Michael Gilbert, adapted by Bryan Forbes who later filmed King Rat with George Segal), Lamont Johnson’s The Mackenzie Break (1971), which unusually looks at events from the POV of German prisoners, and more recently the Bruce Willis / Colin Farrel drama Hart’s War (adapted in 2002 from the novel by John Katzenbach). Also of note in the Emmy-winning TV-movie starring Walter Matthau, The Incident (1990), set in a German POW camp on the US mainland with Peter Firth. All are well worth seeing, but none are as good at Stalag 17.

DVD Availability: Easily available in decent if barebones DVD editions worldwide as well as a special edition from Region 1. All sport decent transfers in the original 4:4 aspect ratio.

Stalag 17 (1953)
Director: Billy Wilder
Producer: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Billy Wilder and Edwin Blum (based on the play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski)
Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo
Art Direction: Franz Bachelin and Hal Pereira
Music: Franz Waxman
Cast: William Holden, Otto Preminger, Don Taylor, Peter Graves, Robert Strauss, Sig Rumann, Neville Brand

*****(4 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in Billy Wilder, Germany, Scene of the crime, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Stalag 17 (1953) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Christmas Mystery

  1. le0pard13 says:

    You’ve convinced me, Sergio. Well done. BTW, that same Gil Stratton went on to have a noted sports reporter career on a local TV news station here in Los Angeles (KNXT, if I remember correctly). Thanks for this, my friend.

  2. Colin says:

    I never really thought of this as a “Christmas Movie”, but you’re right in pointing out how it can be viewed as such. It’s certainly not a crime picture, but then again you’re not arguing that and I was always aware of the mystery aspect of the story. As a mystery, I think it works very well and is quite gripping.
    Generally, you could say it’s typical Wilder in that it works successfully on so many different levels – the comedy, drama and cynicism all blended together very well.

    POW films, like prison movies, are basically chamber pieces that draw heavily on the limited sets and forced interaction of the characters. When the writing is strong, as it is here, this usually results in a memorable character study. Funny thing is though that POW movies always seem much more attractive that straight prison dramas in spite of their inherent similarity. I guess it all boils down to the reasons the characters are banged up for – the POW variety always retains some kind of optimism, even at its darkest.

    • Thanks for that Colin – the other plus I suppose, compared with a normal prison picture, is that they are always innocent! And of course the contrast with a murder committed in such circumstances, where killing is technically a soldier’s ‘duty’ always makes for power and ironic drama. It is very typical of Wilder as you say, especially his fascination with msks and disguises and multiple identities so the unveiling of the traitor certainly fits right in.

      • Colin says:

        Yes, the question of guilt is central to prison movies, with the majority of those involved having committed some crime or other. POWs may be locked up in a similar setting but the reason for their being there is entirely different.
        Both Holden and Wilder respectively were doing some great work around this time.

        • Holden made some great movies but it is amazing how stars under contract would get used in those days! He made a wide variety of movies but also several titles that, with a different actor, would habve probably been relegated to programmer status, which is always a surprise to me. But then even major stars made a lot more movies than they do today. The same year he did this he also starred in the forgettable Forever Female supporting Ginger Rogers for instance …

          • Colin says:

            True. Contract players were always kept busy by their employers. Still, I think the 50s were pretty good to Holden. If you look at his credits from Sunset Boulevard through to The Horse Soldiers I feel that, despite some inevitable dross, there are more hits than misses in there.

          • The 50s was fefinitely the height of his career, which is impressive considering he’s starred in Golden Boy in the late 30s – very much in parallel with Glenn Ford’s career, as you said in a previous post i think and it is fascinating so see how they matured with their films – Holden was I think the bigger star in terms of longevity (never really went into telly did he) – it’s such a shame that all those years of hard living really started to show in the 60s. His four films with Wilder are all tops with me (including fedora – really looking forward to the Olive release allegedly scheduled for next year …).

          • Colin says:

            Yeah, Ford’s career dipped quite suddenly whereas Holden saw a leveling off before starting to rise again. By the end of the 60s he was starting to look quite lived-in to say the least. He was just past 50 when he made The Wild Bunch but looked a good bit older.

          • I think Holden was a good actor and a genuine star with a really long career by any standards – it is maddening and saddening when you hear that poeple with such success and so much oing for them also have such a self-destructive streak. Where’s the hope for the rest of us mere mortals?

  3. Patti Abbott says:

    I haven’t seen this one in many years. But I have always enjoyed Holden so it’s time to revisit. My favorite of his roles is SUNSET BOULEVARD, of course. And he is more credible than Bogart in SABRINA.

  4. Colin says:

    You now, I forgot to mention this earlier but I was delighted to see you mentioned the music , especially the use of When Johnny Comes Marching Home. It maybe regarded as a Civil War song, but it’s essentially an Irish song and ought to touch a nerve with anyone with a drop of Irish blood in their veins. One of the greatest Irish bands, of whom the lead singer was born not all that far from myself in County Armagh, recorded the Irish version of the song.

    • Thanks for that Colin – I hadn’t heard that arrangement before. It’s a great song used many times (even in Die Hard!) and Waxman was of course a master (he also scored Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and the underrated Spirit of St Louis)

  5. I haven’t see this film, Sergio, but I like the unusual title, the presence of William Holden as an opportunistic marketeer, and the setting in a German POW camp during WWII.

  6. Some typos, Sergio…”during WWII” if I may. Many thanks

  7. Mike Doran says:

    I always call this my favorite Christmas movie, half-jokingly, but it is an all-time favorite of any kind.
    Nowadays, Stalag 17 is a feast for the character actor buff; In addition to the ones you’ve already mentioned, here are a few more interesting ones:

    – Ross Bagdasarian, who sings “I Love You” at the Christmas party. He went on to create Alvin and the Chipmunks, which became a highly profitable family business for his son.
    (By the way, you can also see Bagdasarian in Rear Window; he’s the songwriter [in whose apartment Hitch makes his cameo].)

    – William Pierson, the honking-voiced “mailman” (“At ease! At ease! At ease!’) He went on to play similar roles in many sitcoms (Three’s Company in particular).

    – Remember that poor shlep who got the letter from his wife telling him of the unbelievable things that were going on back home, to which his response was “I believe it … I believe it …”
    That was Ed Trczinski, one of the authors of the original play.
    (The other one, Donald Bevan, was one of the escaping prisoners who got killed in the opening.)

    – Last, but certainly not least, Richard Erdman as Hoffy, the barracks chief.
    He has the tough job of playing straight to practically everybody else, especially so when his own comic talents are the equal of all the others.
    When Hoffy leads the closing scene with “Everybody back in your bunks … like nothing happened.” – That’s my favorite line in the whole picture.
    Richard Erdman is the only surviving member of the principal cast; he’s coming up on 87 years old, and can still be seen on Community in a recurring bit part as an overage college student (many of his too-brief bits are amaong the show’s funniest).

    I cribbed much of this from the special features in the Stalag 17 DVD, which I commend to you all.

    • Thanks very much for all the great info Mike – I knew Ed Trczinski played the one with the letter about the baby but not that bevan was in it too – fascinating! Have a great Christmas mate.

  8. Pingback: DEATH IN CAPTIVITY (1952) by Michael Gilbert | Tipping My Fedora

  9. Pingback: Danger Within (1959) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film | Tipping My Fedora

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