Although the play by Edmund Trzcinski and Donald Bevan had been a smash hit on Broadway, most insiders did not expect STALAG 17 to succeed as a film. The story concerned WWII American POWs held in a Nazi camp--but it combined serious drama with broad farce and offered one of the first anti-heroes in American film in the leading role. And with the war still very fresh in every one's mind, the combination seemed more likely to offend than appeal. Everyone concerned held their breath when the film debuted: would audiences get it? They did indeed, and STALAG 17 became one of the most critically-lauded and commercially popular films of the early 1950s, picking up an Academy Award nomination for director Billy Wilder and a Best Actor Oscar for William Holden in the process.
The story concerns American prisoners of war held in the German "Stalag 17" in 1944, and it begins grimly: after much planning, the Americans have devised an escape for two of their number, but the next morning the bullet-riddled bodies of the two men are dragged into camp and dumped in the mud. But the escape plan should have worked. It was perfect. How did the Germans know? Suspicion begins to settle on J.J. Sefton (Holden), a bitter cynic and hardbitten opportunist who spends his time running various scams designed to strip his fellow prisoners of what little they have.
While this might have worked as drama pure and simple, the film counterbalances its darkness with streaks of a sort of "boys will be boys" broad farce played out in the most over-the-top way imaginable. And strange to say, even given the overplaying typical of the early1950s, the balance works: for every dramatic twist there is a stroke of comedy, and for every stroke of comedy there is a dramatic twist. In Wilder's hands the ensemble cast, which includes the likes of Otto Preminger and Peter Graves, performs some of the most remarkable juggling of the decade. But the glue here is William Holden. Interestingly, according to most sources Holden hated the play and hated the character and did the project under duress. Whatever the case, he gives a truly remarkable performance: Sefton is not a likable man by any stretch of the imagination, but even so he has certain self-integrity that you cannot help but admire. While Holden is now probably best remembered for his performances in SUNSET BLVD and NETWORK, his work here is likely the finest of his entire career.