Produced and directed by Billy Wilder, it starred William Holden, Don Taylor, Robert Strauss, Neville Brand, Harvey Lembeck, Peter Graves, Sig Ruman and Otto Preminger in the role of the camp's commandant. Strauss and Lembeck both appeared in the original Broadway production.
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. First presented at the Edwin Burke Memorial Theater of The Lambs, a theatrical club, on March 11, 1951 (staged by the authors). It began its Broadway 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 than otherwise). 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.
Stalag 17 begins on "the longest night of the year" in 1944 in a Luftwaffe prisoner-of-war camp somewhere along the Danube River. The story is narrated by Clarence Harvey "Cookie" Cook. The camp holds Poles, Czechs, Russian females and, in the American compound, 640 sergeants from bomber crews, gunners, radiomen, and flight engineers.
Manfredi and Johnson try to escape through a tunnel, but are shot by waiting guards when they emerge outside the barbed wire fence. The other prisoners conclude that one of their own must have told the Germans. Suspicion falls on Sefton, an enterprising cynic who barters openly with the German guards for eggs, silk stockings, blankets and other luxuries. He also organizes mouse races and various other profitable ventures. Sefton tells the men it is foolish to try to escape.
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 [Colonel] von Scherbach. They use a clandestine radio, smuggled from barracks to barracks, to pick up the BBC and the war news. One German guard, Feldwebel [Staff Sergeant] Schulz, confiscates the radio in another success for the "stoolie."
"Animal" Kuzawa is infatuated with movie star Betty Grable, and becomes depressed when he learns she has married bandleader Harry James. Harry "Sugar Lips" Shapiro gets six letters at mail call and makes Animal think they are from women. When Kuzawa sees a finance company letterhead, Harry admits they repossessed his Plymouth.
Sefton bribes the guards to let him spend the day in the Russian women's barracks. The other prisoners conclude that this is his reward for having informed the Germans about the radio. When he returns, he is accused of being a spy.
Then von Scherbach takes Lieutenant James Schuyler Dunbar, a temporary inmate, away. Dunbar admitted to the other prisoners that he had blown up a passing German ammunition train while he was being transported to the camp. Sefton resents Dunbar for coming from a wealthy Boston family. The men are convinced that Sefton betrayed Dunbar, so they beat him up and ostracize him. Sefton then decides to uncover the identity of the real spy. During a fake air raid, he remains unnoticed in the evacuated barracks and overhears the barracks security chief, Price, talking with Schulz in German and divulging the means by which Dunbar destroyed the train (a matchbook with a lit cigarette tucked into the edge to create a time delay). Sefton considers what to do. If he exposes Price, the Germans will simply remove him and plant him in another camp. Killing him could expose the entire barracks to retaliatory execution.
On Christmas Day, the men find out that SS men are coming to take Dunbar to Berlin for his sabotage. They create a diversion, free Dunbar, and hide him. Nobody but Hoffy, the compound chief, knows where he is. The Germans, despite extensive efforts, are unable to find Dunbar. After von Scherbach threatens to raze the camp if necessary, the men decide one of them must get Dunbar out. Price volunteers, but then Sefton accuses him of being a spy. Sefton asks him, "When was Pearl Harbor?" Price knows the date, but Sefton quickly asks what time he heard the news. Without thinking, Price answers 6 o'clock and that he was eating dinner — the correct time in Berlin, but not in Cleveland, Ohio, his claimed hometown. Sefton then reaches into Price's jacket pocket and extracts the "mailbox" used to exchange messages with the Germans, a hollowed-out black chess queen.
Sefton decides to take Dunbar out himself because he likes the odds and the expected reward from Dunbar's family. The men give Sefton enough time to get Dunbar out of the water tower above one of the 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, creating a diversion that allows Sefton and Dunbar to cut through the barbed wire and escape. A pleased Cookie whistles "When Johnny Comes Marching Home".
Both Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas were considered for the role of Sefton.
The prison camp set was built on the John Show Ranch in Woodland Hills, on the southwestern edge of the San Fernando Valley. The shoot began in 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.
Stalag 17 was a commercial success. Produced on a budget of $1,661,530, it earned $3.3 million in US theatrical rentals and $10 million in worldwide markets. The film was well received and is considered, along with The Great Escape and The Bridge on the River Kwai (also starring Holden), among the best 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 31 reviews, and the site's consensus stating: "Stalag 17 survives the jump from stage to screen with flying colors, thanks to Billy Wilder's typically sterling direction and a darkly funny script."
Awards and nominations
Holden won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. His acceptance speech is one of 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. It is said that he felt he was given the award as consolation for not having previously won it for Sunset Boulevard.
In addition, Wilder was nominated for the Best Director Oscar, and Strauss for Best Supporting Actor.