William Holden did not like the part of Sefton as written, thinking him too selfish. He kept asking Billy Wilder to make Sefton nicer. Wilder refused. Holden actually refused the role but was forced to do it by the studio.
Charlton Heston was originally considered for the role of Sgt. J.J. Sefton, but when the script was altered to make the character less heroic, he was dropped in favor of someone more suitable for the role. Kirk Douglas stated he was next in line and declined the part, making William Holden the third choice. Douglas came to rue his decision, saying it was the biggest mistake of his career.
To improve the chances for commercial success in West Germany (at that time already an important market for Hollywood) a Paramount executive suggested to Billy Wilder that he should make the camp guards Poles rather than Germans. Wilder, whose mother and stepfather had died in the concentration camps, furiously refused and demanded an apology from the executive. When it didn't come, Wilder did not extend his contract at Paramount
This film was one of the biggest hits of Billy Wilder's career. He expected a big piece of the profits. The studio accountants informed him that since his last picture Ace in the Hole (1951) lost money, the money that picture lost would be subtracted from his profits on this film. Wilder left Paramount shortly after that.
Otto Preminger always claimed that, as a director, he would only shout at actors if they were late or if they did not know their lines. Employed solely as an actor in this film, he told Billy Wilder at the start of filming that if he ever forgot his lines, he would present Wilder with a jar of caviar. Wilder later told interviewers that he soon had dozens of such jars.
Things that were more verbal and stage-bound in the original were worked out in more visually innovative ways during shooting. For instance, the discovery of the true informer came about on stage in an overheard conversation. On film, Billy Wilder used the visual clue of the light cord with the loop in it.
Billy Wilder filmed the movie at a studio-owned ranch in Agoura Hills, California. He wore his best shoes and made sure cast and crew saw him with those shoes on in the mud. Wilder felt he could not ask his co-workers to work in the mud unless they saw him do the same.
Although suggestions for making Sefton more palatable were rejected by Billy Wilder, the director did allow for a fleeting moment of warmth and humanity in the final scene. As he slips down into the tunnel in the barracks, Sefton says bitterly to the other airmen who had once rejected, accused and beaten him, "If I ever run into any of you bums on a street corner, just let's pretend we've never met before." That departure seemed too abrupt and anticlimactic, so Wilder had William Holden pop back up through the hole, smile, and salute before disappearing again.
The role of Sefton was originally written for Charlton Heston. But as the role evolved and became more cynical, William Holden emerged as the director's choice. Holden was asked to see the play on which the movie was based. He walked out at the end of the first act. He was later convinced to at least read the screenplay.
William Holden's acceptance speech for Best Actor was the shortest in Academy history up until that time. He said only two words: "Thank You." Holden hadn't meant to be so brief, but the televised TV broadcast of the Academy Awards ceremony was running long, and was about to be cut off the air. Holden later took out an ad in the Hollywood trade publications thanking the people he had intended to thank in his speech. The briefness of Holden's speech was later surpassed by Alfred Hitchcock (who accepted his Irving Thalberg Award in 1967 with a simple "Thanks.") and by John Mills, who after playing a mute character in Ryan's Daughter (1970), accepted his 1971 Best Supporting Actor award with a simple smile and a thankful nod of the head.
On the first day of shooting, Billy Wilder made it clear that the script was to be delivered exactly as written with no deviation. He addressed this to the entire cast but with particular focus on William Holden, who wanted lines changed or added to make the character of Sefton more likeable, and Otto Preminger. The latter had a tendency to ham it up and, as a seasoned director himself, was used to calling the shots.
One day during an afternoon break in filming, William Holden "entertained" a young actress in his dressing room. Later that day, while shooting one of the final scenes with Don Taylor in the water tower, he looked down and saw his wife standing on the set with a stricken look on her face. Convinced she had learned about the dressing room incident, he climbed down, certain his marriage was over. He was greatly relieved when he realized she had only come to tell him she had accidentally wrecked their car.
The film is based on a play of the same name which is based on the experiences and reminisces of its authors Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski both of whom were prisoners of war in Stalag 17B in Austria during World War II. Bevan, a B-17 tail gunner who was shot down over Germany in 1943, was the inspiration for the character Sergeant McIlhenny in Twelve O'Clock High (1949).
According to the Virgin Film Guide, this film provided the template and inspiration for the television sitcom series Hogan's Heroes (1965). Moreover, this is particularly also the case for one of its chief characters, Sgt. Johann Schulz (played by Sig Ruman) who is said to have provided the basis for the character of Sgt. Hans Georg Schultz in Hogan's Heroes (1965) (played by John Banner). However, this assertion has been disputed legally and lost though many people still believe it.
The authors of Stalag 17 sued the creators of the TV series Hogan's Heroes (1965) for plagiarism, as they had submitted a proposal for a TV show based on their play in 1963 to CBS. The case was closed with an undisclosed settlement.
William LaChasse, had a bit part in the movie. He was hired by Paramount Pictures to be in several films after WWII. They bought him a SAG card and gave him a few lines in each film. Back then, there was no Screen Extras Guild. The real reason they made him an actor was a cheap way to use him as an Assistant Production Designer. He was actually a Prisoner of War for almost three years in Germany after being shot down in his B-17 by German Messerschmitt Fighter pilot, Otto Peter Stammberger. The production depended heavily on his recollection of how the prison camp looked. He said it started out as a "B" movie, but after "New York" saw the dailies they gave Billy Wilder "carte blanche."
When Sefton knocks on the water tank, at the latrine, he taps 10 TIMES to the tempo of the Army Air Corp song. Those knocks are UP WE GO (pause) INTO THE WILD BLUE YONDER. This is the same song Hoffy whistles to Dunbar as he is led out of von Scherbach's quarters, to let Dunbar know "something's up, so be ready".
While filming at Paramount's ranch in Calabasas, California, Billy Wilder reportedly wore his best shoes to work in the mud. He felt it was only fair, since he was asking his cast and crew to work under filthy, muddy conditions day after day. He even refused to use the planks that were set down for Otto Preminger's commandant character and as a result ruined his very expensive footwear.
Both of Billy Wilder's two only war films, Five Graves to Cairo (1943) and Stalag 17 (1953) received the same number of Academy Award nominations: three. Five Graves to Cairo (1943) received Oscar nominations in technical categories (Editing, b/w Interior Design, b/w Cinematography) whereas Stalag 17 (1953) received Oscar nominations in performance-related categories (Director, Actor, Supporting Actor), the latter winning Best Actor. Five Graves to Cairo (1943) and Stalag 17 (1953) were both released in years where another black-and-white World War II movie dominated at the Oscars: Casablanca (1942) winning three and From Here to Eternity (1953) winning eight.
William Holden threw himself into the role with a great deal of intensity. His hair was cropped into a crewcut and his face unshaven, a look that not only gave the character reality but also undercut the actor's good looks. Usually friendly and lively on a movie set, he was withdrawn on the Stalag 17 set and complained about the noise and pranks among the rest of the cast, some of whom had an easy camaraderie from more than a year of doing the play on stage. But as his confidence grew in the role, Holden became more at ease, sometimes even frivolous, on the set.
According to the Virgin Film Guide, Otto Preminger's POW Camp Commandant character Colonel von Scherbach in this film is reminiscent of Erich von Stroheim's similar character, prison camp commandant Captain von Rauffenstein in Jean Renoir's, La Grande Illusion (1937). Although Preminger played a Nazi officer, in real life he was Jewish, as was Erich von Stroheim.
Von Scherbach and the other officers of the camp are wearing Wehrmacht (Army) uniforms and caps. The stalag camps for Allied airmen were operated by the Luftwaffe, whose uniforms were somewhat different in design and color (obvious from the emblems on the officer's caps, though not the color, since the film was photographed in black and white).
Warren Sortomme, an extra in the film, was an actual prisoner of war in Germany. He relates that there were around nine other POWs that served as extras. Warren was flying in a B-24 that was shot down over Northeastern Germany (now Poland) during the war.
After the scene where Sefton cooks the egg for breakfast, William Holden's character goes off on an extended rant on how futile escape attempts are. Holden ironically argued in favor of escape planning in his subsequent starring role as a POW in 'Bridge On The River Kwai.' As Sefton, he makes the point that a successful breakout will ultimately result in being shipped out to the Pacific and winding up in a Japanese prison camp. While he implies the two fates are equally damning, there was a considerable difference in the odds of survival. German POWs lived through their imprisonment at a 87% rate; conversely, Japanese held prisoners died in captivity at the staggering 87% rate.
The true name of Robert Strauss' character Animal is spoken in the mail call, but its spelling is confusing. Though frequently referred to in reviews as Stanislaus Kasava or Stanislas Coosava, it is revealed in the official scripts as Stanislaus Kuzawa. Kuzawa is a Polish town 67 km south of Bialystok., and it is important to remember that Polish w is ALWAYS pronounced as v.
Stanislas Kasava supposedly has been a POW for some time, yet when he looks through the telescope to see Sefton at the Russian compound, it's clear that he took off his wedding band for the movie because you can see the tan line on his ring finger.
Normally the German military assigned staff officers to command oflags (prison camps for enemy officers), while captains, or the equivalent outside the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe, commanded stalags for enlisted enemy soldiers. It was quite unusual, therefore, for Stalag 17 to have been commanded by a colonel such as Von Scherbach.
The dog tags that you can see around the necks of some of the prisoners are authentic. They are not a pair of US GI dogs but instead are a single dog tag with two slots that lets them be broken in half in the event the soldier is killed. This is exactly what the Germans used.
Oberst von Scherbach, played by Otto Preminger, mocks the song composer Irving Berlin during one of his speeches in the camp. Both Preminger and Berlin are buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, NY.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
In order to keep the actors' reactions for the film's plot twists as close to genuine as possible, the film was shot in sequential order (i.e., the first scene was filmed first, and so on), which is contrary to how movies are generally filmed.