Stalag 17

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Stalag 17
Stalag 17.jpeg
Film poster
Directed byBilly Wilder
Produced byBilly Wilder
Screenplay byEdwin Blum
Billy Wilder
Based onStalag 17 (play) 
by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski
Narrated byGil Stratton
StarringWilliam Holden
Don Taylor
Otto Preminger
Music byFranz Waxman
CinematographyErnest Laszlo, ASC
Editing byGeorge Tomasini
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release dates
  • May 29, 1953 (1953-05-29) (UK)
  • July 1, 1953 (1953-07-01) (US)
Running time120 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Budget$1,661,530
Box office$10,000,000
 
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Stalag 17
Stalag 17.jpeg
Film poster
Directed byBilly Wilder
Produced byBilly Wilder
Screenplay byEdwin Blum
Billy Wilder
Based onStalag 17 (play) 
by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski
Narrated byGil Stratton
StarringWilliam Holden
Don Taylor
Otto Preminger
Music byFranz Waxman
CinematographyErnest Laszlo, ASC
Editing byGeorge Tomasini
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release dates
  • May 29, 1953 (1953-05-29) (UK)
  • July 1, 1953 (1953-07-01) (US)
Running time120 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Budget$1,661,530
Box office$10,000,000

Stalag 17 is a 1953 war film which tells the story of a group of American airmen held in a German World War II prisoner of war camp, who come to suspect that one of their number is an informant. It was adapted from a Broadway play.

Produced and directed by Billy Wilder, it starred William Holden, Don Taylor, Robert Strauss, Neville Brand, Harvey Lembeck, and Peter Graves (Strauss and Lembeck both appeared in the original Broadway production); Wilder also cast Otto Preminger in the role of the camp's Commandant.

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 began its run in May 1951 and continued for 472 performances. The character Sefton was loosely based on Joe Palazzo, a flier in Trzcinski's prisoner-of-war barracks.

The script was rewritten quite a bit by Wilder and Blum and the film was shot in chronological order (not the usual practice as that method is more expensive and time-consuming). In a featurette made 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 the film was held from release for over a year due to Paramount Pictures not believing 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.[1]

Plot[edit]

Stalag 17 begins on "the longest night of the year" in 1944 in a Luftwaffe prisoner-of-war camp located somewhere along the Danube River. The story of a Nazi spy in Barracks Four is narrated by Clarence Harvey "Cookie" Cook (Gil Stratton). The camp holds Poles, Czechs, Russian females and in the American compound 640 sergeants, enlisted men from bomber crews, gunners, radiomen and flight engineers.

Prisoners of War Manfredi and Johnson try to escape through a tunnel the inmates have dug under the barbed wire. They are immediately shot by waiting prison guards when they emerge outside the fence. The other prisoners conclude that one of their own must have informed the Germans of the escape attempt, and suspicion falls on Sefton (William Holden), a cynical and somewhat antisocial prisoner who barters openly with the German guards for eggs, silk stockings, blankets and other luxuries. He also organizes mouse races and various other profitable enterprises that net him his hoard of "luxuries." The other prisoners are suspicious of his fraternization with the enemy and resent his dealmaking success — for instance, he wins a large number of cigarettes (he only smokes cigars) from the other prisoners by betting against Manfredi's and Johnson's successful escape, then trades the cigarettes to the Germans for an egg the next morning.

Sefton tells the men it is foolish to try to escape. He is not seeking "fruit salad" (a common World War Two term for the colorful ribbons.) He continues, "what if you escape, make it back to the United States, they ship you to the Pacific, you're shot down again, this time you're in a Japanese Prison camp."

The lives of the prisoners are depicted: they receive mail, eat terrible food, wash in the latrine sinks, and collectively do their best to keep sane and defy the camp's commandant, Oberst von Scherbach (Otto Preminger). They use a clandestine radio, smuggled from barracks to barracks throughout the entire camp, to pick up the BBC and the war news. Their German guard, Feldwebel Schulz (Sig Ruman), confiscates the radio in another success for the "stoolie".

Humor is seen in "Animal" Kasava's infatuation with movie actress, Betty Grable. He suffers from depression when he learns Betty has married bandleader Harry James. Harry "Sugar Lips" Shapiro gets six letters at mail call, and makes Animal think they are from women. When Kasava sees a finance company letterhead, Harry admits they repossessed his Plymouth.

Sefton bribes the guards to let him spend the day in the women's barracks in the Russian section of the camp. The other prisoners spot him through Sefton's own telescope (he had earlier charged each of them a fee in cigarettes for a brief glimpse of the women's shower area), and conclude that this is his reward for having informed the Germans about the radio. When he returns he is accused of being a spy. At that moment von Scherbach pays a visit to the barracks to apprehend new prisoner, Lieutenant James Schuyler Dunbar (Don Taylor), who had previously told the other prisoners that he had blown up a German ammunition train while he was being transported to the camp. Sefton knows Dunbar comes from a wealthy Boston family. Sefton washed out of pilot training in the class from which Dunbar graduated. Sefton feels Dunbar was commissioned because of his family's money. The men are convinced that Sefton divulged Dunbar's act of sabotage to the Germans, and they viciously beat Sefton, after which he is ostracized. Sefton then decides to investigate and uncover the identity of the spy in order to clear his name. Eventually he remains in the barracks during a fake air raid and successfully discovers the identity of the spy, the barracks security chief, Price (Peter Graves), whom Sefton overhears conversing with Schulz in German and divulging the means by which Dunbar destroyed the ammunition train.

Sefton divulges the theory to his only friend in the camp, Cookie. He points out that the stoolie may not be an American traitor at all but a German spy posing as an American to ferret out information. If he exposes Price, and proves he is the real stoolie, the Germans would simply remove him and put him in another camp.

On Christmas Day the men find out that SS men are coming to take Dunbar to Berlin for interrogation. The entire camp creates a distraction and Dunbar is freed and hidden. Nobody but the compound chief Hoffy (Richard Erdman) knows of Dunbar's whereabouts, and he refuses to divulge the information to anybody, even the supposedly trustworthy Price. Dunbar is thus successfully kept from the Germans despite extensive search efforts. After von Scherbach threatens to raze the camp to find Dunbar, the men decide one of them must help Dunbar escape. Price volunteers for the job, and when he appears to have convinced the other prisoners to let him do it, Sefton reveals him as the spy. After accusing Price, Sefton asks him "When was Pearl Harbor?" Price knows the date, but Sefton traps him by quickly asking what time he heard the news. Without thinking, Price betrays himself by answering 6 o'clock and that he was eating dinner — the correct time of the attack in Berlin, Germany; but it was lunch time in Cleveland, Ohio, from where he claims to have come. After that, Sefton reaches into Price's jacket pocket and extracts the "mailbox" used to exchange messages with the Germans, a hollowed-out black chess queen.

With his fellow POWs convinced of Price's guilt, Sefton decides to take Dunbar out of the camp himself. First, because he likes the odds of escape, and second, for the reward he can expect from Dunbar's wealthy family. The men give Sefton enough time to get Dunbar out of his hiding place (the water tower above one of the camp latrines) then throw Price out into the yard with tin cans tied to his legs. The ruse works: Price is killed in a hail of bullets (to the later consternation of von Scherbach and Schulz) by camp guards who believe him to be Dunbar or one of the other prisoners, creating a distraction that allows Sefton and Dunbar to cut through the barbed wire and make their escape. Everyone begins to wonder if Sefton or Dunbar will ever make it out of Germany alive. Animal says, "Maybe he just wanted to steal our wire cutters. You ever think of that? " The film ends with Cookie whistling "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again."

Cast[edit]

Casting[edit]

Both Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas were considered for the role of Sefton. Holden was reluctant to play Sefton as he thought the character was too cynical and selfish. Wilder refused to make the role more sympathetic and Holden actually refused it, but was forced to do it[citation needed] by Paramount.

Location[edit]

The prison camp set was built on the John Show Ranch in Woodland Hills (not Calabasas, as is commonly claimed), on the southwestern edge of the San Fernando Valley, for a shoot beginning during February, the rainy season in California (providing plenty of mud for the camp compound). It is now the location of a meetinghouse of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Woodland Hills.

Reception[edit]

Stalag 17 was a commercial success. Produced on a budget of $1,661,530, it earned $3.3 million in US theatrical rentals[2] and $10 million in worldwide markets.[3][better source needed] The film was well received[4][5] and is considered, along with The Great Escape and The Bridge on the River Kwai (also starring Holden), among the greatest World War II Prisoner of War films. Bosley Crowther praised the film, calling it "cracker jack movie entertainment". More recently, film critic James Berardinelli stated that "among the 20th century directors, few were more versatile than Billy Wilder." The film currently has a 97% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 29 reviews.

Awards and nominations[edit]

Holden won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. His acceptance speech is the shortest on record ("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.

In addition, Wilder was nominated for the Best Director Oscar, and Strauss for Best Supporting Actor.[6]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ p.146 Weaver, Tom Peter Graves Interview in Earth Vs. the Sci-fi Filmmakers: 20 Interviews McFarland, 1 Jan 2005
  2. ^ 'The Top Box Office Hits of 1953', Variety, January 13, 1954.
  3. ^ Box Office Information for Stalag 17. IMDb. Retrieved August 8, 2013.
  4. ^ Bosley Crowther [1] New York Times
  5. ^ http://uk.rottentomatoes.com/m/stalag_17/
  6. ^ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0046359/awards

External links[edit]