The war movie hero, that most selfless of creatures, willing to risk life and limb for all and sundry, a mainstay of wartime fiction. But you won’t find him here. William Holden plays Sefton, a man that could drive a nun to violence. Self-obsessed, materialistic, with seldom a thought for anyone but himself. He is the type of man that has coffee and eggs for breakfast, whilst those around him have to make do with a ladle of washing-up water. Unsurprisingly he is not the most popular resident of Stalag 17, a Second World War Prison camp housing American air force sergeants.
When an escape attempt goes tragically wrong, leaving two American prisoners dead, a mole is suspected and suspicions turn towards Sefton. The thinking being that anyone that has as many privileges as he does must be trading something more important than cigarettes with the German guards. It also doesn’t help that he was taking bets on the failure of the escape attempt.
When smiling assassin, prison guard Sergeant Schulz (an amusing Sig Ruman) confiscates the prisoners’ illicit radio, suspicions of a traitor are cemented. The final straw comes when new arrival Lieutenant Dunbar (Don Taylor), a man that Sefton openly despises, whom has just regaled his new barracks mates with a tale of destroying a German ammunitions train, is arrested for said act. Sefton is summarily beaten, and vows to find the real culprit.
Adapted from Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski’s tremendously successful Broadway play by Billy Wilder and Edwin Blum, Stalag 17 is riotously funny. Filmmaker Otto Preminger is hilariously straight-faced as the camp commandant von Scherbach, a man that has his boots put on to speak to a superior officer on the telephone, and walks around the camp grounds on a series of wooden planks laid by his subordinates. The duo of Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) and Animal (Robert Strauss), obsessed with the Soviet women prisoners, illicit booze, mouse racing and Betty Grable are a wonderful double act.
But the film’s greatest strength is the character of Sefton. All too often, in a mainstream movie, when a character is shown in an unflattering light, he is later given an opportunity to redeem himself with some totally out of character selfless act of heroism. Thankfully, that is not the case here. Although Sefton is eventually redeemed, and does in fact become the hero, his actions are only ever motivated by self-preservation or material gain. He doesn’t grow. He doesn’t change. He is Sefton!