This post came about as a result of a chance conversation with a friend who admitted that he often confused William Holden with Joseph Cotten. That reminded me, of course, of Holden (who happens to be among my favourite actors), and then of the shameful fact that I have never, not in the nearly-four years that this blog’s been in existence, reviewed a Holden film. [Though he is, even though you can’t see his face, part of the current blog header].
Stalag 17 is by far my favourite Holden film. Partly because it brilliantly combines two genres that I am partial to—war and suspense—and partly because it was scripted and directed by another favourite, Billy Wilder. In large part, though, it’s because of William Holden that Stalag 17 is a film that I can see over and over again.
The film begins with a brief mise en scène. It is 1944, and the setting is a stalag—a Luftwaffe Prisoner of War camp. This is Stalag 17, and it is home to some 40,000 Allied POWs, including Americans, Russians (of whom some are women soldiers), Poles, etc.
One compound here consists of only American sergeants: 630 of them, all cooped into a set of barracks.
It is a week before Christmas, and we’re introduced to some of the occupants of Barracks 4, which is where the action is centred. There are, to begin with, the barracks clowns, Stanislaus ‘Animal’ Kuzawa (Robert Strauss) and Harry Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck).
Shapiro is the envied one who always receives the largest number of letters when the mail arrives, and boasts that they’re from all his lady friends back in the States. The ladies miss ‘Sugarlips Shapiro’, he says. [As a matter of fact, the letters are all from the bank, reminding him to pay the money due on the Plymouth he’d bought before he joined up].
‘Animal’, on the other hand, lays no claim to being a lady killer; instead, he’s completely infatuated with one lady: Betty Grable. He’s seen every single film of hers six times, and he has a poster of hers stuck on the inside of his bunk, where he can stare dreamy-eyed at her all the time. His greatest wish in life is to be able to meet Betty.
There is the Barracks Chief, ‘Hoffy’ Hoffmann (Richard Erdman), and the bearded, hot-headed Duke [Neville Brand—who, in real life, started off as a soldier during World War II, and began his acting career there, playing in army training films].
There is Joey (Robinson Stone), whose mental balance has suffered the ravages of war. Joey spends his time sitting quietly by and watching his colleagues; the only time he ever shows any signs of emotion are when he’s playing his flute. Music is about the only thing Joey still seems to be really connected with in this world.
And there is Security, Price (Peter Graves). ‘Security’, because Price’s job is to make sure that the Germans don’t cotton on to the American POWs’ attempts to escape or to keep in touch with what’s going on in the outside world.
One such episode is where the story begins: with a planned escape. On that night one week before Christmas, a carefully designed plan is being put into action to get two of the men out of Stalag 17 and (hopefully) across the woods, past the border and into Switzerland. The men have learnt and relearnt their instructions; they’ve been given forged identity papers; they’ve got their disguises; and Price has timed it all down to a T.
Everybody in Barracks 4 is excited—and certain that their two comrades are going to make it. How could they not? The planning is fool-proof.
One man, though, does not agree with the rest. Sergeant JJ Sefton (William Holden) is the pessimist (or the realist?) of the barracks. When the two men have been sent on their way—towards the latrines, where a tunnel has been dug—Sefton starts calling for bets. Who will bet on the chances that the two men won’t get out alive?
Sefton faces instant anger: all the men of the barracks rear up at him. How dare he even talk of such things?! But they’re so certain, they’re even willing to take on Sefton and bet against him.
…but it seems Sefton has been prophetic. Those beautifully laid plans go terribly awry, with German soldiers bursting out and gunning down the two men just as they are on the verge of fleeing into the forest.
The next morning, the Commandant of the camp, Oberst von Scherbach (Otto Preminger in one of his few appearances as an actor) addresses all the POWs—and shows what happens to POWs who try to escape.
Roll call over, the men go off to their daily routine. Gradually, as the scenes unfold, we see that Sefton enjoys certain privileges the others don’t. For instance, he’s the only one in the long line of men at the latrine sinks who has soap.
And, while the rest have to subsist on so-called ‘potato soup’ (the dregs of which are used, by the man who doles it out, to wash his socks)…
…Sefton fries an egg for himself.
Sefton, we discover, is the go-getter of the barracks. He is the man who’s always looking for a way to make life a little easier for himself, no matter how (though it does seem all above board, at least for now).
For example, Sefton has rigged up a ‘bar’. He, along with the rather timid Sergeant Harvey Cook ‘Cookie’ (Gil Stratton) uses discarded potato peels to brew a ghastly liquor. Ghastly it may be, but the men are more than willing to pay for it with the cigarettes they get as part of their Red Cross parcels.
Sefton is also the one who organises the ‘horse races’ (the ‘horses’ being mice, and the racetrack being a wooden contraption) in the barracks. There’s heavy betting, with Sefton being bookie, manager, organiser, breeder, handicap expert—and, invariably, raker-in of all the winnings. Again, cigarettes.
And Sefton has managed to get hold of a high-resolution lens and has got someone to craft a powerful ‘telescope’ out of it. You can’t see to the Swiss border with it, but you can certainly see right into the Russian women’s compound—and there are men queuing up for a 20-second peek through the lens, handing over cigarettes to Sefton (or his assistant, Cookie) in exchange.
So, yes: Sefton obviously has a nose for business, and he’s earning cigarettes left, right and centre. It’s these cigarettes that he uses to bribe the German soldiers to get him things: eggs, bottles of wine, other hard-to-find goodies. The other men resent it, and Sefton doesn’t really care what they think.
The American sergeants section has two men who’re designated to go around distributing the mail when it arrives. One of them has only one leg, and they use the empty part of his trouser leg to strap in things that can be surreptitiously moved from one barracks to another. This time, when Marko the Mailman (William Pearson) and his friend call at Barracks 4, the trouser leg yields a radio. The men at Barracks 4 can have it for a week before it has to be passed on to the next barracks.
The men rig up the radio—with a wire leading to one of the poles holding up a volleyball net outside—and are listening in on a frequency when the alarm is called: Sergeant Johann Sebastian Schulz (Sig Ruman) is coming!
Schulz is big and bluff, outwardly laughing and exchanging jokes with the Americans—especially Animal and Shapiro—and seems to be on such friendly terms with them that Duke even confronts him and asks how the Germans knew about the two men who’d tried to escape.
“You know everything that’s happening in this barracks,” says Duke. “Who’s tipping you off?” Schulz denies that anybody is tipping him off. And follows it up by ordering all the men out to ‘undig’ (his words) the tunnel they had dug.
And when Barracks 4 is empty, Schulz walks over to the table down the middle. A bulb is suspended over this, its string knotted into a loop. Schulz undoes the loop…
… and picks up the black queen from the chessboard lying on the table. He replaces the queen with an identical one he pulls out from his own pocket, and then he leaves.
So there is someone—a stool pigeon—inside Barracks 4, feeding the Germans information. Someone let them know of that planned escape, and now has passed on more information.
The men of Barracks 4 don’t know about the chessboard-and-bulb trick, of course, and life goes on.
Two new men arrive in the barracks: Sergeant Bagradian (Jay Lawrence), and Lieutenant Dunbar (Don Taylor), who’s been put here for a week until he can be transferred to officers’ accommodation. It soon turns out that Dunbar and Sefton know each other, and don’t like each other. They had joined up together, and Dunbar—according to Sefton, by using his family’s wealth—had been able to get into the officers’ cadre.
The other men of the barracks break up the quarrel that erupts between the two men, and Dunbar and Bagradian are welcomed to the barracks. Bagradian starts talking about what Dunbar had accomplished shortly before he was taken captive: the blowing up of a German ammunition train. Bagradian is proud of his boss, and even Dunbar, after some initial embarrassment, admits that was a job he’s glad to have pulled off.
Someone warns Bagradian and Dunbar to keep quiet—if the ‘stoolie’ in the barracks is within earshot, chances are the Germans will soon be informed of Dunbar’s sabotage.
But the damage has already been done. The next time Schulz visits Barracks 4, he confiscates their precious radio, and the men’s suspicions start building up.
One man is obviously rolling in wealth. One man here is the opportunist, the one who’ll not miss a chance to make some money. One man here is the misfit…
And when the commandant comes and has Dunbar hauled off to be kept in custody until he’s handed over to the SS, Barracks 4 is convinced. It is Sefton. Sefton is the stoolie, selling out his own countrymen, his colleagues, to the Germans. Almost before he knows it, they spring upon Sefton and thrash him black and blue, even though he keeps insisting he is not the man they’re looking for.
If Sefton isn’t the stoolie, who is? And even if they discover the man, what can they possibly do with him? Confront the Germans, and they’ll simply transfer the man to another stalag, to infiltrate POW ranks there. There seems no way out. In any case, except for Sefton, everybody believes that Sefton is guilty.
What I liked about this film:
Everything, really. Stalag 17 is one of those rare films that strike the magic balance between different genres perfectly. It’s a war film, yes, because it’s set during the war, in a POW camp. There is the reality of war—the sheer cold-blooded way in which men trying to escape are shot down, and the effect of battle on someone like Joey, who’s lost his wits to it.
On the other hand, there’s the beauty of human resilience: the charming, often humorous way, in which the prisoners of Stalag 17 manage to keep their heads up, keep themselves entertained, even attempt to enjoy themselves, through all the hardship they face. Sefton’s bar, the ‘horse races’, and the telescope trained on the Russian women’s barracks—and, more than that, the little Christmas tree they decorate (with their dog tags), and the Christmas party that’s organised, with dancing and all.
And, all the while, there’s the suspense. We, the audience, realise there’s a stoolie and discover how he’s communicating with the Germans fairly early on in the film. We even find out who it is much before Barracks 4 finds out. But even if we know who it is, how will they discover? And if and when they do, how will they deal with it?
William Holden, in one of his best roles. Well, actually his best role—he won his only Oscar for Best Actor for his role as JJ Sefton.
Oh, and this, a very infectious rendition of When Johnny comes marching home (warning: don’t watch this—though you can listen—if you haven’t already seen the film. The visual contains a major spoiler). This is a tune I’ve loved since I was pretty young (mostly because of a Hindi film clone), and the Stalag 17 rendition is my favourite.
What I didn’t like:
A scene where Shapiro and Animal concoct a plan to get out of their section and across, to where newly arrived Russian women soldiers are lining up to be deloused. It could’ve been a funny scene, but it’s a little prolonged and ends up (literally) with some slapstick that didn’t really appeal to me.
But I’m really not complaining. Stalag 17 is, for me, one of the best war films of the 50s. Simply superb.