Luftwaffe camp Stalag 17D is an unruly World War II POW camp run by arrogant and cruel commandant Von Scherbach (Otto Preminger) who advises the American USAAF inmates about the impossibility of escape. In fact, every time someone has attempted it, the Germans seem to be aware of it, and they are caught.
A feeling grows that there must be a spy among the prisoners in the camp and the suspicion falls on Sergeant JJ Sefton (William Holden), a cynical, scheming, cocky loner whose only interest in their escape plans is laying odds on their chances of succeeding or failing.
The men accuse Sefton of being a spy when Von Scherbach shows up and has Lt. James Dunbar (Don Taylor) removed (Dunbar had told his fellow POWs that he had destroyed a German train containing ammunition – a secret the barrack spy has obviously relayed to von Scherbach).
The men are convinced that Sefton betrayed Dunbar, so they beat him severely. The next morning, the day before Christmas, the Red Cross delivers packages to the American compound while Sefton, alone in the barrack recovering from his beating, tries unsuccessfully to bribe camp guard Feldwebel Schulz (Sig Ruman) to get him to release the name of the real spy.
In the midst of a fake air attack, Sefton stays in the empty barracks and hears the security head, Sgt. Frank Price (Peter Graves), speaking with Schulz in German and describing how Dunbar was able to blow up the train.
Sefton ponders his next move. If he tells the other POWs about Price, then the Germans will relocate him to another camp, putting others at risk. If he kills Price, he could put the entire camp in danger of execution.
On Christmas Day, the men hear that the SS is set to relocate Dunbar to Berlin for what they assume will be extended interrogation/torture sessions. They use a diversion to free Dunbar and hide him elsewhere in the camp. Despite strenuous efforts, the Germans cannot locate Dunbar.
Von Scherbach says that the camp will be destroyed, along with the people in it, if Dunbar isn’t turned in, so the men decide that one of them must remove their comrade from harm’s way. Price says that he will do it, but Sefton accuses him of being the spy.
As a test, Sefton asks, “When was Pearl Harbor?” Price knows the date, but Sefton swiftly follows up, asking at what time he heard about the attack. Immediately, and without fully considering his answer, Price says that he heard at 6 pm while eating dinner. This mistake unmasks him: 6 o’clock was the time in Berlin, but not in Cleveland, Ohio, where Price is supposed to hail from.
Sefton searches Price’s pockets and ﬁnds a hollow chess piece that Price was using to send secret messages to his German unit (messaging them using a lightbulb cord).
Sefton and Dunbar escape out of a water tower above the latrines, while the other men punish Price by using him as a diversion: he is thrown into the yard with cans tied to his legs. The alerted tower guards ﬁx Price in their searchlights and open ﬁre. Despite his protestations, he is quickly shot dead.
Amidst the chaos, Sefton and Dunbar make it out.
Stalag 17 is a rousing, biting depiction of the raw and tense conditions among American servicemen in a prisoner of war camp. It shows all the cruel ironies, the jousting and scheming and upmanship games, the temporary loyalties and feuds and the accumulated tensions of a group of men in confinement.
William Holden gives one of his most and full-bodied performances as the shifty Sefton. Otto Preminger is wonderful casting as the sadistic camp commander, Colonel von Scherbach – an in-joke on a director known for his martinet methods.
Other standouts in the all-male cast include Richard Erdman as prisoner spokesman Hoffy, Neville Brand as the scruffy Duke, Peter Graves as blonde-haired, blue-eyed “all American boy” Price, Gil Stratton as Sefton’s sidekick Cookie (who also narrates the film) and Robinson Stone as the catatonic, shell-shocked Joey.
Exterior scenes were shot during the first two weeks of February 1952 at a realistic seven-acre replica of the camp built at the John H. Show Ranch in present-day Woodland Hills, 20 miles northwest of Hollywood, an elaborate set complete with rows of prisoners’ huts, guard towers, high fences topped with barbed wire, and an administration building.
All the interior shots were filmed in a simulated barrack room on a Paramount sound stage.
Wilder shot the film in sequence and kept the identity of the undercover German informant secret from most of the cast until the end, in order to elicit more authentic performances.
Sergeant J.J. Sefton
Lieutenant James Dunbar
Oberst von Scherbach
Sergeant Stanislaus ‘Animal’ Kuzawa
Sergeant Harry ‘Sugarlips’ Shapiro
Sergeant ‘Hoffy’ Hoffman
Sergeant Frank Price
Feldwebel Johann Sebastian Schulz
Sergeant ‘Blondie’ Peterson
Sergeant Clarence Harvey ‘Cookie’ Cook
Gil Stratton Jr