William Holden initially turned down the role of prison camp inmate Sgt. J. J. Sefton in the film version of the Donald Bevan/Edmund Trzcinski play Stalag 17. He did so because of his belief that Sgt. Sefton is too cynical to be a hero. His studio, however, demanded that he take the role, and he won the only Oscar of his astounding career as a result. The cynicism that Holden was opposed to is the key ingredient to making this film’s lasting impact. Set entirely in the barracks of a WWII prison camp, we learn early in the film from the commandant (played by Otto Preminger in a performance that is simultaneously terrifying and hilarious) that “nobody has ever escaped from Stalag 17, not alive anyways.”
The commandant says this in response to an escape attempt that led to the deaths of two prisoners. The remaining soldiers placed bets on the outcome of the attempt. While most bet on how far the two escapees would get, Sefton wagered that would not make it out of the camp alive. As he won the bet, he became the most notorious figure in the camp, and the rest soon came to believe that he was trading secrets to the commandant, betraying his fellow prisoners. The movie, however, gives strong clues from the beginning that Sefton is in not doing this and is in fact a hero, despite his rough persona.
We see early on that cynicism is not equal with betrayal for Sefton but rather is the result of his trauma from war. Among the prisoners with Sefton, one is unable to speak, one endlessly searches the barracks for Betty Grable, most smoke, drink, and gamble, and they all (those who can speak anyways) make constant jokes about the their circumstances. These behaviors are all that they know in their current conditions to try to shut out the reality of the constant trauma around them. Sefton’s primary defense mechanism is his cynicism. In betting against the boys’ safety, he was in no way demonstrating a desire for their deaths; he said he merely liked the odds, and his behavior throughout the film reflects these words. He is cold, calculated, and smart making every decision based on the odds. Because of this, we see how much more there is to him than the cynic most of the inmates see.
Sefton is devoted to his fellow soldiers. He has hope for a future apart from war. It takes a majority of the movie, however, to recognize all the good qualities that Sefton possesses. It’s much easier to see the positive in the other soldiers, although they are the ones constantly judging Sefton, accusing him of treason because of a character trait that they do not understand. As I mentioned earlier, the audience is shown almost from the beginning that Sefton is not the traitor but that a traitor is among them. The tension of the story comes from knowing that any one of the seemingly upstanding characters could be that traitor, though no surface characteristic like Sefton’s cynicism is evident to help discern who it might be.
Stalag 17 portrays a powerful picture of the dangers involved with prejudice. Assuming that he is their enemy because of his cynical edge, the characters put themselves at risk of not finding the actual traitor. They tend to accept what any prisoner other than Sefton says to them without question, which could lead to the death of any of them since they are believing the words of the traitor.
We all tend to have prejudices about certain behaviors or personality types. We make assumptions about peoples’ moral or spiritual states based on surface actions or ways of communicating that in reality have nothing to do with those states. Billy Wilder’s great film reminds us that we cannot know what is truly in the hearts of people without getting to know them deeply. Certainly, the Bible tells us that we know good leaders by their fruit, but this does not mean that we can make broad judgments about a person (especially whether or not they are followers of Christ) based on their actions if we do not share deep personal connections with them. Stalag 17 gives us an opportunity to get to know someone whose surface actions do not make him appear to care about anybody other than himself. But the more we get to know him, the more we see compassion and devotion for other people that has been masked by his rough exterior formed at least in part through the trauma of war.
Reviews of Other Billy Wilder films:
Some Like It Hot (1959)
Sunset Blvd. (1950)