Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Stalag 17 (1953)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Stalag 17 (1953)

In writer/director Billy Wilder's entertaining black comedy and dramatic war film - the film was based on an original Broadway play with a script co-written by Edward Trzcinski - who was an actual German captive in a POW camp (Stalag 17B in Austria) during WWII; the film screenplay was co-scripted by Wilder and Edwin Blum - chronicling the imprisonment of Americans in a German POW camp: [Note: The popular CBS-TV show Hogan's Heroes (1965-1971) was also set in a German Stalag POW facility.]

  • after the opening title credits (to the tune of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home"), the night setting was a large German POW camp known as Stalag 17 "somewhere on the Danube" in late December 1944 during WWII; there were about 40,000 POWs there, including a group of captured US Sergeants (630 US airmen) who were imprisoned in Compound D
  • one of the characters serving as the narrator, Clarence Harvey "Cookie" Cook (Gil Stratton, Jr.) began with an introductory flashback to provide the story: "I don't know about you, but it always make me sore when I see those war pictures -- all about flying leather-necks and submarine patrols and frogmen and guerillas in the Philippines. What gets me is that there never was a movie about POWs -- about prisoners of war. Now my name is Clarence Harvey Cook -- they call me Cookie. I was shot down over Magdeburg, Germany back in '43. That's why I stammer a little once in a while, especially when I get excited. I spent two and a half years in Stalag 17. Stalag is the German word for prison camp and number 17 was somewhere on the Danube. There were about forty thousand POWs there, if you bothered to count the Russians, the Poles and the Czechs. In our compound, there were about six hundred and thirty of us -- all American airmen --- radio operators, gunners and engineers -- all Sergeants. Now you put six hundred and thirty sergeants together and, oh mother -- you've got yourself a situation! There was more fireworks shooting off around that joint! Take for instance the story about the spy we had in our barracks. It was about a week before Christmas in '44 and two of our guys -- Manfredi and Johnson to be exact -- were just getting set to blow the joint..."
  • there were views of machine-gun carrying German guards with vicious guard dogs patrolled the area, marked by searchlights, high fences, gates, and barbed wire; primitive one-story wooden structures held the prisoners
  • inside the crowded Barracks # 4, triple-level bunk beds lined the interior where 75 men were cooped up; everyone helped to coordinate the attempted escape of two US airmen: Manfredi (Michael Moore) and Johnson (Peter Baldwin), who were being supported by Barracks Chief "Hoffy" Hoffman (Richard Erdman), and Security Chief Frank Price (Peter Graves); cynical wise-guy Sergeant J.J. Sefton (Best Actor-winning William Holden) watched from the side; the two escapees were supplied with civilian clothes, a compass, faked papers (as French laborers), a map, and money, and were briefed with detailed instructions on their route to their ultimate destination - Switzerland; Sefton briefly commented: "Just one question. Did you calculate the risk?"

Barracks Chief "Hoffy" Hoffman (Richard Erdman)

Security Chief Frank Price (Peter Graves)

Sgt. Sefton (William Holden) Watching the Doomed Escape Attempt
  • Manfredi and Johnson descended under the barracks building through a trap door located under the heavy iron stove, and then crawled and scampered across the compound's grounds to a tunnel under the wash latrine that led out of the camp to a forest; once they reached the Danube, they were planning to take various forms of transport (a barge and a train) out of Germany to Switzerland - and freedom; as the others wished for their success, the enterprising Sefton callously forecast: "I bet they don't even get out of the forest" - and even dared to wager about their success or failure: "Two packs of cigarettes say they don't get out of the forest"
  • as Sefton had predicted, Manfredi and Johnson were mowed down by three German soldiers (manning a machine-gun) waiting for them as they emerged from the tunnel in the pine forest about 30 feet outside the barbed wire; inside the barracks after hearing the dreaded gunfire, one of the prisoners Sgt. Stanislas "Animal" Kuzawa (or Stosh) (Robert Strauss) voiced what everyone was thinking: "Maybe the Krauts knew about that tunnel all the time!" - and Sefton was suspected to be the most-likely Nazi informant
  • the next morning, "Cookie" introduced the new scene: "Every morning -- at six on the dot -- they'd have the Appell -- that's roll call to you..."; the inhabitants of the barracks were awakened by their "alarm clock" - buffoonish NCO supervisor Sgt. Johann Sebastian Schulz (Sig Ruman)
  • during a line-up in the cold, stark weather, the prisoners noticed the corpses of Manfredi and Johnson lying in the mud under a blanket; the main German Kommandant was introduced: sadistic and smug warden Oberst Von Schernbach (Otto Preminger); he addressed the POWs with a warning about challenging his escape-free record: "I understand we are minus two men this morning...Fortunately those two men did not get very far. They had the good sense to rejoin us again, so my record would stand unblemished. Nobody has ever escaped from Stalag 17. Not alive, anyway"; he reminded them that anyone outside the barracks after lights out would be shot on sight; also, the iron stove hiding the trap door would be removed, and the escape tunnel would be filled in

Sgt. Johann Sebastian Schulz (Sig Ruman)

Kommandant Oberst von Schernbach (Director Otto Preminger)
  • later while washing up in the latrine, Duke (Neville Brand) speculated with his co-patriots about how the Germans knew their escape plans: "I just want to know what makes those Krauts so smart....maybe there's somebody in our barracks tipping 'em off like one of us! of us is a stoolie - a dirty, stinkin' stoolie!"
  • Sefton encouraged suspicion by deliberately tormenting the others - he fried up a fresh egg in a skillet on the iron stove, accompanied with a cup of instant coffee with sugar - food luxuries that he had acquired by recently trading 45 cigarettes with the Germans (the ones he had won betting on the escape attempt); Duke inquired with an accusatory insinuation: "What'd ya give the Krauts for that egg?"; Sefton explained how he had profited by becoming an entrepreneur, but that didn't make him a traitor: "What's your beef, boys? So I'm tradin'. Everybody here is tradin'. Only maybe I trade a little sharper. So that makes me a collaborator?...This ain't no Salvation Army -- this is everybody for himself. Dog eat dog"
  • resourceful black marketeer Sefton delivered a precise explanation of his motivations to try to remain as smart and 'comfortable' as possible during his imprisonment, and not foolishly try to escape: "Whaddya think the chances are of gettin' outta here? Well, let's say you make it to Switzerland! Let's say to the States? So what? They ship you out to the Pacific, slap you in another plane, and you get shot down again, only this time you wind up in a Japanese prison camp. That's if you're lucky! Well, I'm no escape artist!...You can be the heroes, the guys with fruit salad on your chest. Me -- I'm stayin' put. And I'm gonna make myself as comfortable as I can. And if it takes a little tradin' with the enemy to get me some food or a better mattress -- that's OK by Sefton!"
  • the comical Marko the Mailman (William Pierson), the Inter-barracks Communications Officer, brought in a smuggled contraband radio (a makeshift set with tubes) to listen to distressing news of the war from the BBC; the men created an antenna wire for the radio and attached it to an outdoor volleyball net through a window; the news was not promising as Sefton asked: "Looks like it's gonna be a longer war than you figured, eh Duke?"
  • the unexpected arrival of Schulz interrupted the news broadcast; Duke confronted Schulz and asked him about a possible informant in their midst: ("We're on to you. You know everything that's happening in this barracks. Who's tipping you off?...Come on, Schulz! Spill it! How'd you get the information? About Manfredi and Johnson? About the stove and the tunnel? All right, Schulz! Who's giving it to you? Which one of us is it?"); Schulz reacted with surprise: "Tipping me off? I do not understand"; Sefton jokingly volunteered: "Why don't you just tell 'em it's me. Because I'm really the illegitimate son of Hitler"
  • later, once he was left alone in the barracks, Schulz observed a loop in the electrical cord of a naked hanging lightbulb suspended above the barracks' chessboard; he realized that it was a signal from the informant that there was a note; he secretly saw that there was a hidden message inside the hollow black queen chesspiece on a chessboard; he pocketed the piece with the message, and placed an empty black queen piece back on the board, and then straightened the cord to signify that he had taken the note
  • Sefton's assistant "Cookie" provided further narration about the informant: "Somebody in our outfit was tipping off the Krauts, sure enough, only who was it? The 'Animal', or Harry, or Hoffy, Price, Blondie, Goofey Joey, or Duke? It sure wasn't me. Maybe it was Sefton"
  • Sefton's profitable enterprises as a "Big Time Operator" included the organization of weekend 'horse'-races with rats (cigarettes were gambling currency), the creation of an alcohol-brewing distillery (a Rube Goldberg apparatus), and an Observatory that involved the rental of a 7 foot-long telescope on a tripod to spy on female Russian prisoners in a neighboring compound being deloused (although steamy windows obscured the view)
Sefton's "Big Time Operator" Enterprises

Sefton's Mice-Race Gambling Enterprise

Makeshift Distillery

Telescope to Spy on Female Russian Prisoners
  • Barracks Chief "Hoffy" became critical of Sefton for his crass exploitation of the others with various forms of entertainment; both "Hoffy" and Duke even insinuated that he was the informant; Sefton explained how he got away with so much: "I grease the Kraut guards. I give 'em ten percent of the take"
  • a few days before Christmas, captured Lieutenant Dunbar (Don Taylor) and Sgt. Bagradian (Jay Lawrence) were temporarily assigned to Barracks 4, while Dunbar was awaiting transfer to the officers' camp; Sefton expressed his scornful prejudice toward Dunbar who he believed had received special admittance into Officer's Training School due to his wealthy Boston upbringing
  • it was unwisely revealed to the entire barracks by Bagradian (using a James Cagney accent) that Dunbar had blown up a German ammunition supply train (with 26 cars) by rigging a time bomb in the Frankfurt train station's restroom; shortly later, a message about Dunbar's destructive train-bombing act was transferred by the informant to Schulz through a message placed inside the black queen chess-piece, signaled by another looped cord
  • two more incidents caused more suspicion to be directed toward Sefton - (1) many thought he had been rewarded for revealing the presence of the radio and antenna (that were confiscated), since his footlockers that were broken into were filled with food, wine bottles, binoculars, a cuckoo clock, wristwatches, and more; (2) Sefton had briefly disappeared - he had reportedly bribed the guards to allow personal time with the Russian females ("Now we know what he got for the radio"); when accused of being a "stoolie" - he barked back: "What is this anyway? A Kangaroo Court?"
Suspicions Grew About Sefton Being the Camp's Stoolie
  • later, Sefton was accused of leaking information about Dunbar's successful sabotage, that led to the Lieutenant's arrest and brutal interrogation and merciless beating by von Schernbach; Sefton thought to himself: ("I suppose some jerk's gonna say I did it"); when falsely accused of being guilty for squealing, Sefton was beaten by his own barracks-mates in his bunk; with a bruised face, Sefton became determined to find out the identity of the spy - with or without Schulz's help: (he questioned Schulz: "Who is the guy?...The one you work with. Who is he? How do you do it?")
  • during the visit of a "Geneva Man" (Erwin Kalser) for a required Geneva Convention inspection, he questioned Dunbar's incarceration and treatment (for being an unproven saboteur) and threatened prosecution through a War Crimes Commission trial following the war
  • to discover further evidence about Dunbar's alleged act of sabotage, during distractions of Christmas celebrations in the barracks (while the men were marching and singing "When Johnny Comes Marching Home"), Price picked up the hollow black Queen to retrieve a hidden message from Schulz and then stealthily replaced the chesspiece with an empty one; to signal that he had received the message, he pulled down on the looped cord to straighten it
  • at the same time while recuperating in his bunk, Sefton suspiciously noticed his first clue about the spy's method of communication - the shadow of the swinging lightbulb cord
  • afterwards, Price casually questioned Sgt. Bagradian about the details of how Dunbar had devised a time bomb "with the old match gag" to blow up the train; Dunbar had tossed his primitive delayed bomb-fuse (a burning cigarette attached to a match book) into an open train car with straw on the floor as the supply train was pulling out
  • during a Christmas Eve party in the barracks, Sefton now noticed that the lighbulb cord was looped; it was Price's signal that he had a message for Schultz; an air raid caused an emergency evacuation (except for Sefton who remained behind in the shadows)
Sefton Noticed a Change in the Bulb's Cord - It Was Now Looped (A Signal that a Message was Ready)
  • from his hiding place, Sefton watched as Price conversed in German with Schulz and demonstrated what he had learned - the details of Dunbar's time bomb (cigarette and match-book device); self-satisfied that he had finally learned the identity of the spy, Sefton lit a cigar; the next day (Christmas Day), Sefton coyly revealed his suspicions about the stoolie to his assistant Cookie: "Maybe that stoolie's not an American at all. Maybe he's a German the Krauts planted in this barracks...Just one of the boys. Sharing our bunks. Eating our chow. Right in amongst the ones that beat me up"
  • Hoffy planned an escape attempt to rescue Dunbar from two SS officers who were preparing to drive him to Berlin; commotion was created with smoke bombs and a riot; the SS officers were jumped and Dunbar was seized and taken to the latrine's water tower to hide there until nighttime; he had to stand up to his knees in icy water while awaiting his escape
  • when asking for volunteers to help Dunbar get out of the camp, Price eagerly volunteered ("I'll take him out"); Sefton cautioned everyone that the informant now knew where Dunbar was hiding: ("The Germans know where Dunbar is...You told them, Hoffy"); it was the perfect opportunity for Sefton to expose Price in their midst as a German-born spy: ("You're kaput, Price!...He's a Nazi, Price is....He spoke our lingo so they sent him to spy school, and fixed him up with phony dogtags")
  • Sefton snatched the black queen ("the mail box") from Price's pocket, and then demonstrated the signal-message system to everyone: ("They did it by mail. That's right. Little love notes between our Security Officer and von Scherbach with Schulz, the mail man. Here's the flag. He used to put a loop in the cord. (He created a loop in the light cord) Did you ever notice? And here's the mail box - hollow black queen. (He picked up the chess piece and opened it) Cute, huh? They delivered the mail or picked it up when we were out of the barracks"); Price was angrily restrained

Sefton: "The Germans know where Dunbar is"

Sefton: "You're kaput, Price!"

Sefton Demonstrating the "Mail" System
  • Sefton decided to help Dunbar escape (he was hoping for a rich reward from Dunbar's wealthy family: "There oughta be some reward money from Mama. Say about ten thousand bucks worth"), while Price as a "decoy" (who had been rigged with clattering tin cans) was shot down in the middle of the compound by guards; the chaos allowed Sefton to crawl to Lt. Dunbar before escorting him out of the camp through the outer barbed wire fence to safety
  • as the film concluded, Schulz and von Scherbach were stunned and shocked to see Price's dead body in the mud; the men inside the barracks pretended as if nothing had happened, as Cookie began to whistle: "When Johnny Comes Marching Home"

Sefton's and Lt. Dunbar's Successful Escape From the Camp

Stunned Shock on the Faces of Schulz and von Scherbach

Main Entrance to Stalag 17

Barracks 4 in Stalag 17

During Escape Plans, Sefton's Question: "Did you calculate the risk?"

Sefton: "Two packs of cigarettes say they don't get out of the forest"

Manfredi and Johnson Mowed Down as They Emerged from Tunnel into the Surrounding Forest

The Early Morning Roll-Call and Line-Up

The Corpses of Manfredi and Johnson

Duke: "I just want to know what makes those Krauts so of us is a stoolie"

Sefton Frying Up a Fresh Egg - Prompting Suspicion

Sefton's Speech to Other POWs About Remaining Smart and 'Comfortable'

Schulz Asked by Duke About The Identity of His Informant in the Barracks

The Signal For the Presence of a Hidden Message (a Looped Light Bulb Cord) From the Informant

Schulz Retrieving the Message Hidden in a Chess Piece

Later, the Cord Had Been Straightened

Lt. Dunbar and Sefton at Odds With Each Other

Signal: The Light Cord Was Looped Again After Information was Divulged About Dunbar's Bombing of German Supply Train

Sefton Demanding to Know the Identity of Schulz' Informant

Von Schernbach's Interrogation of Lt. Dunbar Regarding Train Sabotage

Price Retrieving a Hidden Message in the Chesspiece

Sefton Noticing the Swinging Unlooped Lightbulb Cord

Sefton Learning the Informant's Identity: Price (Speaking German to Schulz)

Sefton with His Assistant Cookie (the film's narrator)


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