Informers and Stalag 17 (1954)

Stalag 17 (1954) was an interesting film from a political perspective.  The film was about an informer within a prisoner of war camp.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

One of the most controversial aspects of the HUAC investigations was the insistence of the investigators for names.  Those named by people testifying were usually already known to the committee and it served no purpose other than to show that the witness was fully co-operative.  Those who informed were also the subject of many films during the 1950s.  Stalag 17 (1954) was an interesting film from a political perspective.  The film was about an informer within a prisoner of war camp.  Director Billy Wilder had signaled his disgust with the HUAC style investigations through his support of Mankiewicz, along with his involvement in the Committee For The First Amendment and it comes through in this film.

The desperate Willliam Holden tries to bribe a German Sergeant to get the name of the Informer.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The authorities were the detested Nazis, and in consequence the film could not be objected to on political grounds.  An informer within the camp was foiling escape attempts and passing on secrets.  It was in one fragment of dialogue that Wilder and co-writer Blum got their message across.  It happened when the suspected traitor William Holden tells his assistant – who no longer trusts him – that there was a German spy in the barracks: ‘It’s hard to imagine an American informing on another American.  But maybe they’re not an American, maybe …’[1]  He is interrupted before he can complete the sentence but the implication was that to inform on another American was an unpatriotic act – perhaps an un-American act – and worthy only of people with the lowest form of morality such as the Nazis.  When the German informer was finally uncovered, he was brutally thrown from the barracks with clattering tin cans tied round his legs to be mown down by machine guns.  It was a violent ending to a film which gave no sympathy at all to the plight of the informer.  Indeed, informers had never been popular in American cinema.  From The Informer (1935) through to Stalag 17 (1954), it was difficult to identify any films where the informer was a hero.  Informing was usually an act of cowardice. Kiss of Death (1947) was one example where an informer was the central hero for testifying against a gangster.  The line is very close to the sentiments of Moe in Pick Up On South Street. In Brute Strength (1947) directed by Jules Dassin, a prisoner says to a sadistic warder played by Hume Cronyn who wants him to inform: ‘I’m a cheap thief, but I’m not an informer.’[2]  Dassin was one of the Hollywood community who was driven out by the HUAC hearings and blacklisting’s.  He was not able to work in America for many years because of his stand.[3]

[1] Stalag 17, (d) Billy Wilder, (w) Billy Wilder, Edwin Blum.

[2] Quoted in Victor Navasky, Naming Names, Viking New York, 1980, page x

[3] Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund, The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community 1930 – 1960, Doubleday, New York, 1980, p. 399.