- Today’s Movie: Stalag 17
- Year of Release: 1953
- Stars: William Holden, Don Taylor, Otto Preminger
- Director: Billy Wilder
This movie is on my list of essential films.
NOTE: This installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies is being done as part of a blog-a-thon celebrating William Holden’s centenary. This is an event hosted by three awesome classic film blogs, The Wonderful World Of Cinema, The Flapper Dame, and Love Letters To Old Hollywood. If you are a fan of classic films, and you aren’t following these three blogs, your cinematic fan experience is not complete.
For those of you who are already regular readers of Dubsism, you know that weaving the worlds of sports and classic film goes back to very beginnings of this blog. In fact, some have said there are times this blog is like a weird combination of Turner Classic Movies and ESPN. In all honesty, there’s a rather simple reason for that. Broken down to their base elements, sports and cinema are just sub-genres of entertainment; they both contain drama, conflict, and suspense.
It all boils down to this: If you are new to Dubsism and you dig sports and classic films, you’ve probably just discovered a new bookmark. If you are only a classic movie buff, you still can find plenty of content you won’t get anywhere else; you just have to selectively shop our tag cloud.
In any event, since we know participating in this blog-a-thon will expose Dubsism to an entirely new audience…well, to quote another William Holden classic…
“We’re ready for our close-up, Mr. DeMille!”
“Stalag 17” is set in a Luftwaffe prisoner-of-war camp in the days leading up to Christmas 1944. The camp’s population is comprised of Poles, Czechs, Russian women and, for the guts of this movie, captured members of American bomber crews. William Holden’s character, Sergeant J.J. Sefton, is one of the captured crewmen.
But Sefton isn’t the typical gunner or radio operator. He’s clearly an entrepreneur, and he oozes the risk-taking nature most masters of the deal have soaked into their marrow. That becomes apparent in the opening scene when he bets bets two decks of Lucky Strikes against every cigarette in the barracks that two prisoners attempting to escape won’t make it. The prattle of German gun fire announces Sefton just became “smoke-rich,” and also lights the mistrust against him from the other prisoners which smolders through the first part of the picture, then burns hotter than an exploding ammunition train.
The way director Billy Wilder frames this, it isn’t hard to think Sefton is a spy. The first-time viewer thinks that as well, which will put them in lock-step with other prisoners. As the film unfolds, Wilder adds to that suspicion. Sefton does nothing but build that idea by his incessant dealing with the Germans, and the resultant accumulation of wealth. And while Sefton fills his foot locker with champagne, cigars, and other trappings, the Germans keep finding out what is going on in the barracks.
This suspicion ramps up when the head camp guard Sergeant Schulz strolls into the barracks one day and just happens to know exactly where a clandestine radio was hidden. It goes up another notch when Sefton dips into his treasure trove to bribe the guards for a day in the Russian women’s barracks. Upon his return, the other prisoners conclude a day with the daughters of the Dnieper was Sefton’s reward for giving the Germans their radio. They then make the suspicion official in that special way only mob mentality can; they accuse Sefton of being a spy. Eventually suspicion turned accusation completes the journey to it’s logical extension; violence. After another event which stokes the belief Sefton is spy, his fellow Americans trap him in his bunk and do what a mob does.
The event which gets Sefton beaten is also the one which drastically raises the stakes of the “spy/not a spy” game. Upon the arrival of a new prisoner, Lieutenant James Dunbar (played by Don Taylor), an entirely new dynamic emerges. Sefton resents Dunbar for coming from a wealthy family; he derisively refers to him as “Chauncey Uppercrust.” Sefton’s treatment of the new prisoner doesn’t exactly help his relations with his barracks’ mates.
In those barracks, Dunbar admits that while being transported to the camp, he had used what we would today call an “improvised explosive device (IED)” made from a cigarette and a book of matches to blow up a German ammunition train. The next day, the camp commandant Colonel von Scherbach (played by Otto Preminger) takes Dunbar out of the barracks, announcing that he is suspected of being a saboteur. The prisoners believe Sefton sold out Dunbar; hence the knuckle party.
On Christmas Day, the prisoners discover the Schutzstaffel (SS) are coming to take Dunbar to Berlin for a trial and presumable execution. During Dunbar’s transfer to the custody of the SS, the prisoners create a diversion with an improvised smoke-bomb, snatch Dunbar away from the Germans and conceal him in the somewhere camp. Von Scherbach’s frustration at being unable to find Dunbar culminates with a threat to dismantle the entire camp, “board by board” if necessary.
At this point, the only person who knows Dunbar’s whereabouts is Hoffy, the compound chief/head prisoner. But during a discussion in the barracks in which the prisoners decide somebody has to get Dunbar out of the camp, they unwittingly give the true spy crucial information. While we still don’t know who is the spy, there’s starting to be clues for the viewer that it isn’t Sefton.
The real spy leaves a signal for Sergeant Schulz, which Sefton notices. Moments thereafter, the Germans stage a fake air raid for purposes of clearing the barracks, thus allowing the real spy to tell Sergeant Schulz all about the escape plan and how Dunbar destroyed the ammunition train. However, Sefton manages to remain in the barracks unnoticed and witnesses the entire exchange between Schulz and the spy.
Once back in the barracks, the prisoners all throw their dog-tags into a hat for a drawing; the owner of the drawn tag gets the job. Naturally, Sefton’s tag is excluded. As Hoffy pulls a tag from the hat, one man grabs the tag and volunteers to take Dunbar out of the camp. This is when Sefton repeats his bet from the opening scene; defiantly placing two packs of cigarettes on the table with the all-important chessboard. This is when Sefton exposes the spy, and in a very “Hercule Poirot” fashion, proves his case by both explaining the modus operandi of the espionage and produces the convicting piece of evidence from the spy’s very own pocket.
Now, the prisoners have two problems. They don’t know how much the Germans know about the plans for Dunbar, and they don’t know what to do with the newly-discovered spy. Sefton solves both, by devising a plan to use the spy as a diversion to give Sefton time to reach Dunbar’s hiding place and spirit him out of the Stalag. Sefton decides to take Dunbar out himself because he likes the odds of success with the diversion and the fact he expects a large cash reward from Dunbar’s well-heeled family.
Under cover of darkness, Sefton slinks under the barracks to get to to Dunbar’s hiding place; remaining unseen was vital as any prisoner spotted outside of the barracks after “lights out” would be shot on site. Once Sefton has Dunbar ready to make a break for the fence, the prisoners remaining in the barracks throw the spy out into the yard with tin cans tied to his legs. The diversion works; while the spy is killed in a hail of machine-gun fire, Sefton and Dunbar cut through the barbed wire and disappear into the woods.
The Hidden Sports Analogy:
This movie is yet another reason why Billy Wilder ranks #2 on my list of greatest directors. It’s also why William Holden is on my list of favorite actors. Most importantly, this is a great movie to “break the ice” for people who say they “don’t like old movies.” There’s the obvious reasons; it is a great story played by an amazing cast and directed by one of the all-time greats. But what wouldn’t immediately occur to the first-time viewer of a film set in a prison camp during the largest war in human history was actually billed as a comedy.
Much of that is due to the comic relief provided by characters Harry Shapiro and “Animal” Kuzawa. There’s no denying that scenes such as when “Sugar Lips” Shapiro gets seven letters at mail call and leads “Animal” to believe they are from women rather than admit they are telling him about the re-possession of his car, or when “Animal’s” infatuation with 40’s pin-up queen Betty Grable results in a sleep-dream-dancing sequence with a costumed Shapiro break into a level of hilarity usually only reserved for the legendary comedy teams of the past.
You’ll notice I went out of my way not to include any spoilers; if you haven’t seen this movie, you simply must. Everybody should see this movie at least once, if for no other reason that it drips with analogies which hold up to this day. Everyone can see their own, but as the title would suggest, I saw comparisons to the world of sport. What else would you expect from a sports blogger?
To put it simply, had J.J. Sefton not been part of a World War II bomber crew, he had all the characteristics to be a top-flight sports agent. Think about it. The only person J.J. Sefton really cares about is J.J. Sefton, and he will do just about anything as long as it furthers the cause of J.J. Sefton. Can you honestly tell me that doesn’t sound just like a guy who would negotiate a multi-million dollar contract for you…so long as he got 20%?
Holden’s “J.J. Sefton” is dripping with those qualities; you see them from the first scene in this film where Sefton takes every cigarette in the barracks wagering on the odds of the escape of fellow prisoners Manfredi and Johnson. When challenged that the eruption of gunfire didn’t signal the end of the escape attempt, he brazenly asks if anybody wants to double their bet. That’s the classic sports agent tactic of driving up the price. If J.J. Sefton had been Jay Mohr’s character in “Jerry Maguire,” his signature line would have been “show me the cigarettes.”
Despite the fact his bartering with his German captors makes him the lightning rod for being a suspected spy, Sefton was all about “show me” the eggs, silk stockings, blankets, cigars, and just about any item which could be a luxury in a prison camp.
The montage showing Sefton’s “wheeler-dealer” tendencies…the jewel being the mouse races…only goes to show the single-most crucial quality for success as a sports agent; the proclivity to make money by any means necessary.
The similarities don’t stop there. Take the scene where Sefton gets pummeled by his fellow prisoners. Any agent who has been in the business knows what getting his butt kicked in a failed negotiation is like. When you top it off with Sefton’s penchant for bribery and the fact he volunteers to take the guy he doesn’t like out of the camp strictly because he thinks there’s a payday in it for him, seeing the analogy of Sefton as a sports agent becomes easier than sabotaging an ammunition train with a Lucky Strike and a few marches.
The Moral of the Story:
While sometimes they may not be very likeable, people who are all about themselves are also the last line of defense against “mob mentality.” After all, had Sefton decided to not expose the spy in the barracks, Lieutenant Dunbar would have a had a date with a blindfold and his last cigarette.
P.S. Regardless of whether you participate in the blog-a-thon or not, please consider donating to the William Holden Wildlife Foundation, which was created by Stefanie Powers in 1982 in honor of her partner.