There are two people in this barracks who know I didn’t do it. Me and the guy that did do it. – Sefton
In the spirit of Memorial Day weekend, I thought it fitting to write about a war movie.
I’ll try not to make this post too quote-heavy but the opening narration explains the setting of this film best…
“I don’t know about you, but it always makes me sore when I see those war pictures…all about flying leathernecks and submarine patrols and frogmen and guerillas in the Philippines. What gets me is that there never w-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 Magdeborg, Germany back in ’43; that’s why I stammer a little once in a while. ‘Specially 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 40,000 POWs there, if you bothered to count the Russians, and the Poles, and the Czechs. In our compound there were about 630 of us, all American airmen, radio opreators, gunners and engineers. All sergeants. Now you put 630 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…”
At the opening of Stalag 17, two actions set the motion for the entire film. First, we witness an escape attempt by two of the men from barracks number four. Second, we meet Sefton who starts taking bets (paid for with cigarettes – the camp’s currency) whether or not the two men will even make it out of the forest…and he gives the odds to them not making it. The rest of the men don’t want to bet against their friends and they each pony up their smokes to bet that they will make it. No sooner do their cigarettes leave their pockets do they hear gunshots outside.
These events start the pattern of almost all of the events to come…Sefton has good luck while bad things keep happening to everyone else. As an audience, it’s even hard to know whether we should like Sefton or not. Clearly, he’s the star. We can tell because he gets so much attention (plus he’s played by William Holden) so we know he’s the one we’re following…but no one seems to like him very much. I’m all for rooting for the underdog – but Sefton’s not an underdog. He’s a prisoner just like all the other guys but he has a bar of soap to wash with, his clothes aren’t torn or dirty, he has a locker full of cartons of cigarettes which he only uses as money since he only smokes cigars. He even has a fresh egg for breakfast…the other’s just look on hungrily.
The narrator, Sefton’s most loyal friend, explains to us that Sefton’s just smart. He is always finding one way or another to get the others to trade him their prized cigarettes and other possessions. He runs a racetrack on Saturdays and Sundays using mice with numbers tied to their tails. He created a distillery using potato peels and charges the men per shot of the liquor…that’s only guaranteed not to make them go blind. I could go on, but I’m guessing you get the idea by now. Sefton has things the others don’t – and he doesn’t share.
The other guys don’t like Sefton but they tolerate him and accept his trades and bets…until they start associating his good fortune with their barrack’s misfortune. Little by little, they start suspecting that Sefton is trading their secrets for his comforts….like just how did he know that the escape attempt would fail so quickly or how did the guards find out about their hidden radio? It starts to seem like every time they have a secret – the guards learn about it and Sefton winds up with some new privilege.
At first, Sefton shrugs it off and chalks it up to their envy. But then their accusations get stronger and he starts defending himself. He tells them, “You put two and two together and it comes out four – only it ain’t four.” Next, they beat him and shun him – he’s alone and we still don’t know if he’s the spy or not. At first, we can’t even be sure if there is a spy – the evidence isn’t clear-cut.
But little by little, we’re let in on the secrets. I won’t ruin it for you if you’ve never seen it but even once we know what’s going on – the film continues to be very suspenseful. It’s still a story of “us” verses “them” during a war. Since the Americans are already in a prison camp, the odds are against them and survival is most definitely on the line.
This is a tense film but it has it’s moments of comedy. The men are bored and they find ways to have fun when they can. Sometimes, a few of the comedic scenes can seem a bit over the top in their silliness but I forgive that because I think the film would be too tense without them. Through all of this – whether Sefton’s the spy or not – they’re prisoners of war and we feel sympathy for all of them. Clearly, they’re cold, dirty, and poorly fed. The German camp commander is necessarily evil as one would expect.
There are many little side stories in this film. The one that gets me each time I see it is when one of the men reads a letter from his wife. She keeps repeating in the note, “you won’t believe it, but”…and we find out that someone just happened to leave a baby on her front porch, it looks remarkably like her, and she’s decided to keep it to raise as their own. The poor man for the rest of the film just keeps repeating…”I believe it.” He looks so sad – just imagine being a prisoner of war and finding out that not only did your wife have an affair but she’s had another man’s baby. He has to tell himself that her story is true or he’ll lose his mind completely.
These little side stories make the film richer. So many of the scenes take place inside the barracks – it’s cramped and it’s shot to make us feel like we’re crammed in there with them, getting to know all of the characters and their stories. When the men suspect Sefton, we feel it too. When he’s beaten – we’re conflicted….who’s side are we on?
There are many great war movies out there. I think this one is unique for its setting. Most war movies seem to be about great battles and heroic leaders and are full of shooting and bombs and action. In Stalag 17, the Americans might be in prison but they certainly didn’t give up and show themselves to be extremely resourceful. Their actions against the enemy are on a different scale but they’re still heroic.