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Film: Stalag 17

"There are two people in this barracks who know I didn't do it. Me and the guy that did do it."
Sefton

Stalag 17 is a 1953 war movie set in a World War II German POW camp, starring William Holden, Otto Preminger, Don Taylor, Robert Strauss, Neville Brand, Harvey Lembeck, Sig Rumann, and Peter Graves, and directed by Billy Wilder. Based on the Broadway play of the same name which in turn was based on the real-life POW experiences of the play authors Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski.

The movie opens the narrator, Cookie (Gil Stratton), recalling the attempted escape of two prisoners, Manfredi and Johnson, whose capture and death cause the American POWs to suspect that a traitor in their midst had tipped off the Germans. The primary suspect is Cookie's friend, the cynical and somewhat antisocial Sefton.

The film is built on a double allegory: the same paranoia that causes the POWs to target Sefton had 1) enabled the Nazis easily to scapegoat the Jews and 2) induced Hollywood shortly before the movie's release to institute the Blacklist scapegoating left-leaning scriptwriters, performers, and others.


This movie contains examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Colonel von Scherbach makes light-hearted speeches to the prisoners:
    All right then, gentlemen, we are all friends again. And with Christmas coming on I have a special treat for you. I'll have you all deloused for the holidays and I'll have a little Christmas tree for every barrack. You will like that.
    • And he says this while the bodies of Manfredi and Johnson lie in the mud in front of him.
    • Sergeant Schulz may claim to be your friend. But he's not.
  • All Germans Are Nazis: Averted with Punch Clock Villain Schulz. His reaction to all the prisoners mockingly dressing as Hitler is a muttered "One Fuhrer is enough."
  • Ambiguously Jewish: Harry Shapiro.
  • Anti-Hero:
    • Sefton's a dick but he is an American at heart.
    • Duke is worse.
  • Billing Displacement:
    • Cookie narrates the movie from his time at Stalag 17, but he was also something of a lancer for Sefton, yet Gil Stratton, Jr.'s billing in the movie was near the bottom of the cast list... even under William Pierson (Marco the Mailman who really only had three significant scenes).
    • Dunbar doesn't have too many scenes in the movie (yet his sabotage of an ammunitions trains in Berlin was an important, major plot point) despite Don Taylor having second billing.
  • Blatant Lies:
    • After the other prisoners beat Sefton up thinking he was a traitor Sefton explains the bruises to the Geneva Representative by saying that he was playing pinochle. The representative knows it is a lie but without Sefton saying anything else he cannot do a thing about it.
    • A POW gets a letter from his wife claiming she just "found" a doorstop baby that happened to look just like her.
  • Bodyguard Betrayal: Price is the designated security guy who greenlights all of the POWs' secret projects. And he's the mole.
  • Boisterous Bruiser: Animal.
  • Book Ends: A prison break opens and closes the film.
  • Bowdlerize: Billy Wilder made no other film for Paramount after this because they wanted to change the mole from a German to a Pole in the German-dubbed version so as not to cause offense among ex-Nazis.
  • Clear My Name: All of Sefton's wheeling and dealings with the Germans comes back to bite him as it makes him the perfect guy for the mole to put all the blame on. Oddly enough he doesn't really complain or care about it and even uses the animosty in his favor while he works out who the real mole is. Ironically saving the Stalag in the process.
  • Cover Identity Anomaly: A Critical Research Failure which ultimately does The Mole in. He got the date when the Pearl Harbor attack occurred right, but failed to take into account the time zone.
    Sefton: Six o'clock in Berlin. They were having lunch in Cleveland.
  • Cut Himself Shaving: The wonderful excuse Sefton gives to explain his injuries from his bunkmates beating him is to say, "Nobody beat me. We were playing pinochle. It's a rough game."
  • Deadpan Snarker: A good chunk of the cast, including Sefton, Shapiro, Animal, and Marco. The whole camp is pretty much a World of Snark, with even von Scherbach and Schultz getting in on the action. This is justified since most of the cast are either prisoners or guards who aren't happy to be where they are but who don't have the option of using physical violence (unless things turn deadly serious.)
  • Death by Irony: Once the identity of the mole is revealed once and for all, Sefton uses him to act as a diversion so he and Dunbar can escape. The POWs tie tin cans to the mole and throw him out of the barracks in the loudest manner possible, thus drawing the attention of every guard, watchdog, and machine gun tower in the camp, which proves to be very lethal.
  • Defiant Ocarina Throw: During the Colonel's Affably Evil instance above, Animal throws Joey's ocarina in the puddle to dirty the Colonel.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: If you're seeing this film after Hogan's Heroes, there are some similarities — enough that the makers of the film sued Bing Crosby for making the show.
    • The Sergeant of the Guard is Schulz; Schultz in Hogan's Heroes...
    • The POWs even dress up as Hitler!
    • In another Hogan's Heroes episode, Newkirk sets off a book of matches, and tosses it into the back of a German truck, causing the truck to blow up... in this movie, Dunbar explains how he made a time bomb to blow up the German amunition train: light a cigarette, slip it into a book of matches, tossing it into a car full of straw, three minutes later, the fire would spread, eventually blowing up the ammunition train.
    • That volleyball scene shows up in one episode of Hogan's Heroes, almost to the letter.
    • Additionally, some camera angles and scenes in The Great Escape are very similar to this movie.
    • The original pilot of Hogan's Heroes uses the same basic plot (simplified for the shorter format and reworked for comedy).
  • Doorstop Baby: A POW gets a letter from his girlfriend saying she found one.
  • Dramedy. It fits, but see Mood Whiplash, below.
  • Dumb Struck / The Speechless: Joey, as he's suffering from severe combat fatigue (or, as it's more commonly known today, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).
  • During the War: It takes place 1944 near the Danube River in Germany.
  • Failed a Spot Check: No one in the bunker noticed the light over the chessboard changing lengths from being tied up to hanging free, and so missed that this was how the spy was contacting the Germans.
  • Fake American: In-universe example. Price is actually a German who lived for many years in the United States and thus speaks fluent English and can fake an American accent. This makes him very effective as an infiltrator.
  • First-Person Peripheral Narrator: Cookie acts as narrator, though he is not the main character.
  • Five-Man Band:
  • Foreign Cuss Word: Cookie uses the word "schweinhund" to describe Schulz; schweinhund is the German equivilant of calling someone a bastard.
  • Foreshadowing: In the scene where Sefton is lying back in his bunk while the other POWs are gathered around ready to pounce on him and beat the tar out of him — note which one of them gives the signal to start the beating. It's The Mole.
  • Freudian Excuse: Schulz is convinced that Joey is "fooling us with that crazy business", though in Joey's defense, Hoffy retorts with, "Oh yeah, how would YOU like to see the guts of nine pals splattered all over YOUR plane?"
  • Genre Savvy: After Sefton is accused of being the spy, he lets the other POWs think such while he figures things out, knowing von Scherbach will either move the mole or kill the whole barracks if he says anything before then.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: Considering the time this movie was released, the scene with a drunken Animal hallucinating that Harry wearing a straw wig is Betty Grable, and even becoming increasingly aroused, much to Harry's discomfort, was very controversial at the time. The studio heads at Paramount Pictures were incredibly uncomfortable with the scene. Nowadays though, it just seen as a silly moment in the film that breaks up the tension.
  • Gratuitous German: In their mock Nazi rally, Bagradian is simply yelling every German word he knows (the script simply says Harpo Does Something Funny)
    Bagradian: Czechoslovakia und Poland - kaput! Und der Fräulein mit der Glockenspiel und der Bustenhalter - verboten! Und der Apfelstrudel mit der Liederkranz - Gesundheit! Everything is Gesundheit, kaput und verboten!
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Animal.
  • Heroic BSOD: Joey maintains one throughout the film. Except when The Mole is caught and about to be killed. He smiles then. He also looks shocked and a bit happy when he gets a new ocarina.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Shapiro and Animal.
  • Hilarity Ensues: Pretty much any scene involving the dynamic duo of Shapiro and Animal.
  • I Am Spartacus: At one point Animal splashes mud on von Scherbach's boots. Not seeing who did it, von Scherbach demands that the guilty party step forward or all would suffer, which Animal does...followed by the rest of the POWs.
  • The Infiltration: One of the prisoners is actually a German spy who has been inserted into the POW barracks to glean intelligence.
  • Jerk Ass: Sgt. J.J. Sefton. With the exceptions of Cookie and Joey, he sees everyone in the compound as simply an opportunity to get resources to trade for goods. This comes to bite him in the ass in the beginning of the story; when he barters with the Nazi guards using the cigarettes he won from a bet involving a botched escape attempt, he is suspected of being an agent planted by the Germans. He eventually becomes a Jerk with a Heart of Gold when he decides to help save Dunbar and gives what's left of his stash to Cookie. Sefton defends this view because his first week in a prison camp netted him lost clothes, and bruises when he tried to do something about it. Being out for himself did him better...
  • Large Ham:
    • Von Scherbach. The colonel goes through great effort to put on his shiny boots just to make a phone call. (So he can click the heels together, ach so...)
    • Animal is also one of the largest members of the prisoners.
  • Leitmotif: The melody of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" is a recurring part through the movie.
  • Military Moonshiner: Sefton runs a still among his various other moneymaking enterprises.
  • The Mole: Film's plot in a nutshell. Revealed to be Price.
    • Mole in Charge: And he's Security for the whole bunker, allowing him open access to most any plots or information the men might have.
  • Mood Whiplash: The constant tonal shifts between broad comedy and deadly serious drama may put people off.
  • More Hero Than Thou: When the men were going to pull a man's dogtag out to select someone to save Dunbar, Price grabs it and claims this. He wants to volunteer to atone for his lousy job as Security. Sefton picks now to do the big reveal.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Schulz. He acts as though he's trying for an over-the-top Wacky Nazi trying to be pseudo-friends with the Americans. Actually, it's an effective cover so they don't realize he's running a spy inside the American barracks.
  • Oh Crap: The moment The Mole realizes that Sefton has proven to rest of the POWs that he's the double agent.
  • Playing Against Type: Richard Erdman usually played comedic roles, so Hoffy was the first time he played a serious character, Billy Wilder even told him he couldn't laugh (or even titter) at all in the movie, and as such, Hoffy is rarely seen cracking a smile. In fact, because of this, Erdman said he couldn't get another comedy part for years, because he was one of the only characters from this movie who wasn't funny.
  • POW Camp: The whole film is set in one.
  • Punch Clock Villain: Schulz.
    (Upon seeing all the prisoners with Hitler mustaches) "Bah! One Fuhrer is enough!"
  • The Reveal / Bluffing the Murderer: When Sefton tricks Price into revealing when and where he heard about Pearl Harbor. "6:00. I was eating dinner," Price answers. Sefton points out that he'd only be able to do that if he lived in Central Europe, and not Cleveland like he said.
    • Well, that and Price was stupid enough to keep the hollowed-out chess piece in his breast pocket.
  • Right Under Their Noses: Harry and Animal attempt to sneak into the Russian women's compound by painting a white line on the ground and past the guard post. It works... for about 30 seconds.
  • Sacrificial Lambs: Manfredi and Johnson die in the first few minutes of the movie.
  • Selective Obliviousness: One of the POWs gets a letter from home from his wife, who writes to tell him about this beautiful baby just left on her doorstep. The guy wants to totally buy his wife's story, while the other POW he's reading the letter to just stares at the camera with an "I can't believe he's buying this" expression.
    [reading] "...and you'll never believe this, but she has just my eyes and my nose!" Why does she keep saying I'll never believe it? I believe it. I believe it!
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Joey. He saw the guts of his squad mates hit his plane. He only appears happy when playing, getting a new ocarina, and watching as Price is caught and about to be killed.
  • Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: Sefton in a nutshell.
    My first week here I lost my blanket, a carton of cigarettes, and my left shoe. Since then I've wised up.
  • Smart People Play Chess: The chessboard on the barracks table which is used as a secret mailbox for Price and Schulz.
  • Spell My Name with a "The": Animal goes back and forth being refered to as, "Animal" and, "The Animal".
  • Those Two Guys: Shapiro and Animal, natch.
  • Those Wacky Nazis: In variety.
  • Took a Level in Dumbass: Animal does this very briefly, after hacking on Sefton's moonshine, and pulling his cap down over his eyes; after Sefton remarks, "All the house guarantees is you don't go blind", Animal starts freaking out because he thinks he's gone blind. Even Harry remarks, "Blind? How stupid can you get, Animal?" before pulling his cap back over his head.
  • Verbal Tic: Marco the Mailman's "At ease! At ease!"
  • We Need a Distraction: In the climax, Sefton comes up with the idea of using Price as this so he can get to Dunbar safely and they can escape the P.O.W camp.
  • Wham Line: In-universe. See The Reveal above.


South PacificMilitary and Warfare FilmsStripes
The Great EscapeWorks Set in World War IIVon Ryan's Express
ShaneFilms of the 1950sThe Titfield Thunderbolt
Some Kind of WonderfulCreator/ParamountStar Trek
The Spy Next DoorImageSource/Live-Action FilmsPOW Camp

alternative title(s): Stalag 17
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