Stalag 17 (1953)

 

 

 

Director:     Billy Wilder.

Starring:     William Holden (Sgt. J.J. Sefton), Don Taylor (Lt. James Dunbar), Otto Preminger (Oberst von Scherbach), Robert Strauss (Sgt. Stanislaus 'Animal' Kuzawa), Harvey Lembeck (Sgt. Harry Shapiro), Richard Erdman (Sgt. 'Hoffy' Hoffman), Peter Graves (Sgt. Price), Neville Brand (Duke), Sig Ruman (Sgt. Johann Sebastian Schulz), Michael Moore (Sgt. Manfredi), Peter Baldwin (Sgt. Johnson), Robinson Stone (Joey), Robert Shawley (Sgt. 'Blondie' Peterson), William Pierson (Marko the Mailman), Gil Stratton (Sgt. Clarence Harvey 'Cookie' Cook).

Oscar: Best Actor (William Holden)

Very entertaining movie, based on a Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski play, of American P.O.W.s held by the Germans being thwarted at every turn in their attempts at resistance and escape by a stoolie inside the barracks.  William Holden does an excellent job as the barracks's cynical hustler who is accused of being the stoolie. Harvey Lembeck and Robert Strauss provide a great deal of comic relief as two very close buddies with Lembeck always trying to cheer-up Strauss who has an obsession with the movie star Betty Grable.   Preminger, of course, plays the role of the commandant of the prisoner of war camp.  

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

Clarence Harvey Cook, aka Cookie, narrates the film.  He says he was shot down over Magdeburg, Germany back in 1943.  He spent two and a half years in Stalag 17.  Along with him were 40,000 other prisoners including Russians, Poles and Czechs.  There were in their compound 630 American airmen, all sergeants.  Around Christmas time in 1944 they thought they had a spy in the unit.    Manfredi and Johns were just about to escape.  They start crawling from under the barracks and head over to the latrine.  From there they crawl through a tunnel.  Sefton takes bets that the men won't make it.  The men get out of  the tunnel and are shot dead by a machine gun.  They knew they were coming.

Their German sergeant was Schulz.  He would wake them everyday at 6 a.m.  Harry wakes up his buddy Animal.  They can kid around with the German sergeant.  Outside the men in formation see the covered-up two dead bodies.  The commandant Col. von Scherbach tells the men that nobody has ever escaped from Stalag 17.  Animal throws a rock into a puddle of water and gets the commandant's boots all dirty. 

The men wonder how the Germans find out so many of their plans.  Perhaps they do have a spy.  There are new Russian dames arriving to the camp.  The guys all rush out there to see them.  They call out to them to get their attention.  Sefton has an egg and the men want to know how he got it.  The egg cost him 45 cigarettes. 

The guys get their chance to use the radio.  They can only use it for two days instead of an entire week, because everyone thinks their barracks is jinxed.  They get the news that five panzer divisions and nine infantry divisions of Von Rundstedt's army are pouring into the wide breach.   This is news about what came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge.  A second German wedge is reported 14 miles west of Malmedy where tank columns cut the road to Bastogne.  . . . The Allied air force is grounded by poor visibility.  Two of Patton's tank units have been diverted toward Bastogne. 

Schulz comes to the barracks and the fellows have to hide the radio.  The guys are ordered to fill in the tunnel they dug for the escape.  The stove is also taken away.  When the men have left Schulz picks up one of the chess pieces and finds a note in it.  He replaces the piece with an exact duplicate and leaves. 

Cookie tells a bit about Sefton.  He was a hustler and a scrounger.    Every Saturday and Sunday he would put on horse races.  In actuality, they were mice races.  The men would bet on the different mice to win and Sefton would take in quite a few cigarettes.  He also had a distillery and made schnapps out of old potato peels that he sold for two cigarettes a shot.  He then put up a viewing post with high powered lenses. 

The men want to know how Sefton got so buddy-buddy with the Krauts that he could run all these concessions.  Sefton says because he gives the guards 10% percent of the take.  Harry and Animal think up a scheme to get over to see the Russian women for a brief while. 

The barracks gets two new "guests":  Lt. Dunbar and Sgt. Bagradian.  The Lieutenant is only here for a week or so.  He will be shipped out elsewhere.  Sefton know the Lieutenant.  They are both from Boston and went into officers' training together, but Sefton got washed out.  Sefton says the family has a fortune of $20 million dollars.  The Lieutenant tells Sefton if he resents his family being rich, start a revolution!  Otherwise, get off his back!

Schulz comes in and knows all about the radio, how it was brought in and where it is hidden.  The men are getting madder and madder.  They still think Sefton is the spy.  Duke comes in and shows the men through the telescope that Sefton is over with the Russian women.  When he returns to the barracks, all the men are waiting for him.  They accuse him of spilling the beans about the radio in order to go over with the Russian women. 

The commandant comes over to the barracks.  He comes for Lt. Dunbar.  The spy told about him blowing up 26 railway carloads of ammunition.  Once again, the guys thinks Sefton did it.  The grab him and beat him up. 

The day before Christmas the Geneva man brought them coffee, sugar, prunes and toothbrushes.  They also ended up with 2,000 ping-pong balls.  Sefton tries to bribe Schulz into telling him who is the spy, but Schulz won't do it.  The men walk in on them just as Sefton is putting lots of cigarette cartons into the sergeant's hands.  They threaten Sefton by saying he may wake up one day with his throat cut. 

The Geneva inspector visits the barracks.  Schulz has told all the men not to complain.  The barracks chief does, however, asks about Lt. Dunbar.  They want the Geneva man to look into it.  The commandant is questioning the Lieutenant.  They are forcing him to stay awake for long hours.  Two SS men will be coming for Dunbar tomorrow to take him to Berlin.  The Geneva fellow comes in to ask about the Lieutenant.  The commandant tells the fellow that Dunbar is no longer a POW because he is a saboteur.  The Geneva man insists that there must be proof that Dunbar really is the saboteur. 

So the commandant tells Schulz to send a message to the spy to find out how the lieutenant used a time bomb to blow up the ammunition train.  And now we find out who the spy is.  It is a man named Price.  He sees the loop in the light bulb cord and gets out his chess piece.  He exchanges his chess piece for the one on the board. 

Sefton notices the shadow the the cord and the bulb has changed.  He ought to know because he has just been laying in his bunk staring at the wall.   The loop it is now gone. 

 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 

 

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