Cookie (Gil Stratton) recalls the time when he was an American prisoner of war in Nazi Germany and wonders why in all those war movies there aren't any stories of the type of experiences he had there. Here he gets his wish, as in Stalag 17 he was the best friend of Sergeant Sefton (William Holden), but nobody else was, thanks to Sefton being the man who made his stock in trade buying and selling on the black market, a necessary evil perhaps, but not one which endeared him to his fellow prisoners. This was most apparent when Sefton made a bet that two escapees wouldn't get past the fence...
Although the Second World War had a significant effect on director Billy Wilder, having lost his home and members of his family in the rise of the Nazis and the subsequent conflict, he didn't make that many films on the subject; indeed, he pretty much only made two, this and Five Graves to Cairo which distinguished themselves in one way by the hiring of a Teutonic movie director in each. In the earlier, Erich von Stroheim was an unhistorical Rommel, but in this Otto Preminger, whose career helming projects was still ongoing, played the leader of the camp, made notable on the set by the amount of obscene gestures the cast and crew performed behind his back.
Preminger was something of a tyrant, you see, and many on the production could scarcely contain their glee when he messed up his lines once again, as if they were finally able to get their own back. But it was perhaps star Holden who was most surprised by the project: he had been practically forced to do it thanks to Sefton being a very unlikeable anti-hero even if he did redeem himself, yet walked away with the Best Actor Oscar for his troubles, and he was very effective at grudgingly accumulating the admiration of the audience as we come to realise he's not as bad as everyone thinks he is - though he still bets against the survival of the escapees and deals with the enemy for preferential treatment.
But did that make him a spy? For the first half we were intended to have mixed feelings about Sefton, but nevertheless enjoy the broad comedy which erupted around him among the ensemble cast. This humour may be a sticking point today as while in its era it was startling and refreshing for such a grim atmosphere to contain lighter moments, watching it now these jokes and japes seem awfully heavy handed which could indicate just how desperate circumstances were for the prisoners, but by the same token aren't all that hilarious unless you were a big fan of sitcom Hogan's Heroes (which was sued by the writers of the original play of Stalag 17, one of whom had a small role in the movie as a husband in denial). But stick with it, as in the latter half the suspense was ratcheted up to quite some degree.
This was down to the main plot strand emerging as the members of the barracks begin to suspect there's a traitor in their midst, after all those two men who made a run for it had a machine gunner waiting for them, and such things don't happen by accident. Naturally, they want someone to blame, and Sefton seems like the most obvious candidate, so he is soundly beaten for something he may not have done, simply for being the outsider when the community would be better to look to one of their own assumed insiders as the culprit. If nothing else, that cast of actors, many of whom had seen action in the services (Neville Brand, one of the most decorated American soldiers ever, was there), made up a convincingly earthy and sex-starved band of brothers, whose loyalty creates a genuine feeling of betrayal when the suspicions begin to take hold. If you didn't get on with the humour, then Wilder did manage to work up a tense war thriller worth your while.