A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this movie has some sexual references. Prisoners make a telescope to spy on the Russian women prisoners and often refer to their long separation from women; Sefton bribes the German guards to let him visit the women; one prisoner keeps insisting "I believe her" when he gets a letter from his wife saying that she found a baby who happens to look just like her.
What's the story?
STALAG 17 centers around American POW Sefton (William Holden), a cynical loner who bets (successfully) that his fellow prisoners will fail in their attempt to escape the German prison camp. He's got a "dog eat dog" philosophy and scrounges or trades for many small luxuries. The other men in his barracks start to suspect him of trading more than cigarettes and silk stockings with the Germans. When Lieutenant Dunbar, a wealthy Bostonian who's on his way to the officer's prison camp, is arrested for sabotage, they conclude that Sefton told the Germans that Dunbar was the one who blew up the train filled with ammunition. They beat Sefton severely. Sefton watches the others, to find the spy, and figures out who it is. But what can he do? If he says nothing, the spy will continue to betray the Americans. If he tells the others, the spy will just be sent to another Stalag. If they kill the spy, they will be killed as punishment. Sefton finds a way to reveal the identity of the spy, and the prisoners use him as a decoy, so that Dunbar can escape. Sefton insists on being the one to take him, believing that the risk of escaping has been outweighed by the chance at a reward from Dunbar's family.
Is it any good?
Stalag 17 is an exceptionally exciting drama, based on a play by two men who were prisoners in Stalag 17. Holden's is superb and won a Best Actor Oscar, and the rest of the cast is also excellent. This movie provides a good opportunity to talk about the role of humor, especially "black" or "gallows" humor, in adapting to the harshest circumstances. Here, when all control over their lives is taken from them, the prisoners try to establish some sense of control with jokes and pranks. While Sefton's approach helps him maintain some sense of power, choice, and control, Animal and Harry use dreams to help them feel better; also giving them a sense of control, even if it is only for the future.
Sefton is interesting because he has none of the redeeming qualities we expect of our heroes. In contrast to Dunbar, who is rich, handsome, charming, unpretentious, modest, and brave, Sefton is selfish, cynical, hostile, and motivated by the prospect of a reward, proving that heroes are just as complicated as everyone else, possibly more so.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about The evidence was very strongly against Sefton, and his unpleasant personality made him a natural object of hostility and suspicion. Contrast the process for finding Sefton guilty with the process the commandant uses to interrogate Dunbar (who was "guilty"). Why did Sefton give his egg to Joey? Why was Sefton so consumed with his own comforts and privileges? Why did the others suspect Sefton? How did the prisoners use humor to keep their spirits up? How do the film-makers use humor to break the tension? How can there be "rules" like those of the Geneva convention in a war? How can those rules be enforced?
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