Cookie lets us know right away that the war story he is telling has to do with a spy in his barracks in the German prisoner-of-war camp, Stalag 17, which consisted of Air Force sergeants. So, not only do the soldiers have to deal with the obvious, overt danger imposed by their captors, but they realize that there is an unseen, hidden threat within their group. They start to smell the rat among them when the Germans thwart all of their plans involving escape and other military activity. The first indication of a traitor among them occurs when guards are already staked out near the forest close to the camp, and shoot two hopeful prisoners after weeks of planning to escape. The soldiers are also deceptive, pretending a radio antenna is a volleyball net, and hiding a radio and later a smoke bomb in the empty pants leg of a prisoner who suffered an amputation due to a war injury. The radio is hidden in a bucket of water with a false bottom, another example of a deceptive appearance. But the Americans are the ones suffering under the oppressive rule of the Commandant (Otto Preminger), and his lackey, Sergeant Schulz (Sig Ruman). And, they are on the side fighting against Nazi atrocities. So, one can argue that subterfuge can be justified if the cause is a just one.
However, there is a prisoner who is not part of any ruses (at least not until the end of the tale). That person is Sefton (William Holden, in the role that won him an Oscar). He is not a likable fellow, as we can see when he takes bets against his wager that the two escaping prisoners won’t make it out of the forest. The other soldiers comment on his coldness, with Harry (Harvey Lembeck) saying Sefton would “make book on his own mother getting hit by a truck.” He is down on any attempts at escape, not liking the odds, which weigh more heavily with him than unreliable patriotism. He cynically says that even if one gets to escape, the Air Force will just put the soldier back in the fight, and then maybe get captured by the Japanese. He acquires food, alcohol, and cigarettes by conducting races involving mice, and making and selling alcohol made from potatoes (this activity shows up in The Great Escape). He uses the goods he acquires to deal with the Germans so he can wait out the war as comfortably as possible. The narrator Cookie is his assistant, helps him with his operations, and even acts like a servant, shaving Sefton. When some judge his attitude, he says in the first week after arriving in the camp somebody stole all the goods in his Red Cross package. He says, “This is everybody for himself, dog eat dog.” He says everybody trades, only his transactions are a little “sharper.” But, when he says that the negative remarks from the others made him lose his appetite, he generously gives the egg he cooked to the afflicted Joey, indicating that there may be a warm spot in him yet.
The man who takes care of security in the barracks is Price (Peter Graves). He says he can’t understand how the Germans knew about the attempted escape. The Commandant coldly displays the bodies of the two men in front of the soldiers to emphasize his order that anyone out after curfew will be shot. One of the prisoners throws Joe’s flute which splashes mud onto the Commandant. When he asks who did it, one steps forward, immediately followed by the others, which undermines Sefton’s statement about selfishness (and which is repeated in the movie Spartacus). The Commandant says the stove covering the escape tunnel (another story device in The Great Escape) will be removed and the tunnel filled in. The hiding of the escape route is another item on the list of appearances being deceiving. The barracks will not have heat as a punishment. Price also questions how the Germans knew about the tunnel. Because Sefton deals with their captors, the suspicion grows among the prisoners that Sefton may be trading secrets for his own gain. One prisoner who is especially hostile toward Sefton is Duke (Neville Brand). When Duke throws something at Sefton, which the latter dodges, Sefton gives a cool and funny response when he says, “Give that man a Kewpie doll.” The line conjures up an escape from what is real in the form of a circus show, where performers play roles that are not their true selves.
Even in the comic subplots, the movie furthers the theme of appearances hiding underlying truth. Harry’s best friend in the barracks is the deep-voiced Animal (Robert Strauss). He has an extreme crush on the sexy actress Betty Grable. One night at a pre-Christmas party, the men dance with other men (defying reality by pretending their partners are women, to give them a comforting illusion). Harry puts on a cap and stuffs straw under it, giving (again) the appearance of a woman, who the inebriated Animal mistakes for Betty Grable. When Animal discovers that it is an illusion, harsh reality crashes in on him, showing that sometimes the ignorance of the truth is more attractive than accuracy (The Matrix anyone?) Another example of the bliss of denial is illustrated when a prisoner gets a letter from his girl back home. She writes that she found a child on her doorstep, and took it in. She writes to the soldier that he’s not going to believe it, but the baby looks just like her. He keeps repeating, “I believe it,” not wanting to accept the real possibility that she was impregnated by someone else. A new arrival is an impressionist, and can do very good impersonations of Clark Gable, James Cagney, and Cary Grant. It is a bit of entertainment placed in the story, but even here we see the theme of how we sometimes buy into falsehood for escapist purposes. Harry receives a great deal of mail, and tries to fool Animal into thinking the letters are all from female conquests. He wants to foster the appearance that he is a great lover, but Animal discovers that the communications are from a company warning of repossession of Harry’s car for delinquent payments. The attractiveness of pretending instead of seeing the things the way they are is demonstrated by the men looking through a make-shift telescope (another of Sefton’s schemes) to watch Russian female prisoners go into a shower. They can’t really see anything through the cloudy windows, but they find joy in their imaginations. Perhaps writer/director Wilder is making a comment about the power of illusion, which is the province of movie-making.
We see how Schulz empties the barracks for various phony reasons, including deviously pretending that there are air raids and wanting to protect the prisoners. He creates these deceptions in order to retrieve the information the spy places in a hollowed out chess queen piece (the piece hiding its true purpose with a benign exterior). The inclusion of the board game in the story symbolizes the larger game that is being played, using the prisoners as pawns in the deceptive strategy to extract information and report it to the Commandant (who by the way is even devious with his superiors, pretending to adhere to strict military protocol, only putting on boots to be heard clicking when he is on the phone with headquarters). Schulz ties the light wire in a loop above the chess board to indicate that there is a communication waiting for the informer, and straightens it out when he has received information.
An American lieutenant, Dunbar (Don Taylor), arrives at the camp. He blew up a German ammunitions train. Sefton has a grudge against him, because Dunbar comes from a very rich family, and he claims that Dunbar’s mother bought his promotion, while Sefton, who was in the same outfit, failed to make the cut. The Germans discover the radio, and Dunbar is held for questioning without sleep, after he spoke about the train incident in the barracks. The men discover that Sefton traded with the Germans so he could spend some time with the Russian women. The prisoners assume Sefton acquired this last favor by giving up the radio and Dunbar. They beat up Sefton and confiscate his foot locker of contraband. The audience now sees Price eyeing the loop in the light wire. While the others sing together, he takes the chess piece and straightens out the wire, whose shadow Sefton sees dangling. Price finds out how Dunbar blew up the train while playing another game, horseshoes (with the game motif repeated), and when he scores, it is noted that he threw a ringer, which is what he is, someone who wins by pretending to be someone he is not.
Sefton now sees the odds in his favor as he continues to use deception in the form of a diversion. The plan is to tie cans to Price’s leg, and gag him until after curfew. Then, the men will throw him out into the compound. During the commotion, Sefton will rescue Dunbar and they will escape. The plan works. Price is killed, appearing to be an escaping prisoner, and so, he will not be able to be used again to spy on other Americans. Sefton gets Dunbar out. Before he leaves the barracks, Sefton tells the others, in character, that if ever runs “into any of you bums on a street corner, just let’s pretend we never met before.” But, he pops up out of the hole under the barracks, smiles, and salutes them all.” Is he really not as hard-boiled as he pretends, and actually has admiration for his fellow soldiers? Or, is he being sarcastic? I know we would like to believe the former.
The next film is Dolores Claiborne.