"Pinochle is a Rough Game": My Love for Stalag 17 | HistoryNet MENU

“Pinochle is a Rough Game”: My Love for Stalag 17

By Robert M. Citino
5/23/2011 • Fire for Effect

Regular readers of this column will know that I don’t really get excited about war movies. I read a lot, research a lot, and write a lot, and there are only so many hours in the day. In a publishing career of 25 years, I have precisely one film review to my credit, a piece I did in Variety last year on Quentin Tarantino’s crazed Inglourious Basterds. I view that movie as two hours of my life that I will never get back.

I know that ignoring war movies is a fault. I preach to my students all the time that understanding culture is crucial to understanding history. The films we make—or fail to make—say a lot about the way we view our wars present and past, and they tell us a lot about the way we view ourselves. Film is important; it is THE mass communications medium of the 20th century, and it is still going strong in the 21st.

I should like them, but I just don’t. So sue me.

The more I think about it, though, there is one war movie that I like, one film that stands above the others, that speaks to me. I could watch it every day, and I have a lot of the dialog committed to memory.

It’s about an unusual topic. Some men march off to war and distinguish themselves in a thousand ways. Some fight in great battles. Some become heroes. And some sacrifice themselves willingly for their buddies, giving that “last full measure of devotion,” as President Lincoln famously said in his Gettysburg Address.

And some get taken prisoner. It’s a miserable fact of war, and there is nothing in the world sadder than photographs of POWs just after they’ve surrendered. Talk about a “1000 yard stare.” A man who has lost all hope for the moment is not a pretty sight. As a result, POWs have largely been MIA in the history of World War II film. World War II films tend to privilege “the action,” for all the reasons you might expect. It’s simply easier to sell to the audience, and while film is an art, it is also definitely a business.

And that leads us to my favorite World War II film: Stalag 17 (1953), directed by Billy Wilder and starring Bill Holden in the unforgettable role of J. J. Sefton. The standard World War II film tended to serve up platitudes about country, cause, and heroism. Stalag 17 gave us tough talk, crackling dialog, and just enough ambiguity to make it a film for the ages. Sefton is many things—a rogue, an entrepreneur, a macher—but one thing he most definitely is not is a hero. In fact, he’s the opposite—perhaps the first great World War II “antihero.”

Prisoners of war have to question why they’re there. Is the cause worthy of their sacrifice? Have I let down my family, friends, and country? Does being captured rob me of my self-respect, even my manhood? Sefton doesn’t ask any of those questions. He wasn’t fighting for a cause in the first place. He lives by his own code, and it seems to work for him. The phrase didn’t exist yet, but Sefton is “looking out for #1.”

He is honest about it, though, and he never claims to be doing anything else. In spite of his egotism—or perhaps precisely because of it—he has a sense of honor. He won’t rat you out to the Germans, even when you and your fellow prisoners accuse him of being a traitor and beat him to a pulp. When the Red Cross man sees his injuries and asks him “What happened to you? Were you beaten?”, he responds with the immortal lines, “Nobody beat me. We were playing pinochle. It’s a rough game.” In the end, Sefton unmasks the stooly in their midst, the guy who has been trumpeting his patriotism the loudest. Sefton’s takedown of the real bad guy is still a powerful scene, and I’ve seen it 50 times.

I could go on, and I feel like going on. Simply listing the 100 greatest lines from Stalag 17 would make for one of the greatest blog entries ever. But I’ll stop.

I guess I don’t hate war movies after all.
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12 Responses to “Pinochle is a Rough Game”: My Love for Stalag 17

  1. Mike H. says:

    Thanks again Mr Cetino. My uncle was shot down over Regensberg in 1943. He spent the next 19 months in Stalag-Luft 17. He went in weighing 185 lbs, with a full head of hair and all his teeth. He came out weighing 80 lbs, bald and missing all his teeth. He considered himself lucky, as he was wearing his “decoy dogtags” that day: they said he was Episcopalian. His real ones said he was Jewish. He wasn’t turned into a bar of soap. During the early 1950s, he was a technical advisor to Mr Wilder for this movie. His only complaint about the movie was that it was “too tame”. I,too, never miss this movie…If only to honor SSGT Bernie Keene USAAF. RIP Uncle Bernie…

  2. Rob Citino says:

    Honor to your Uncle Bernie, Mike H! Thanks for posting this.

    –Rob C

  3. michael says:

    Billy Wilder was one of the greatest Hollywood directors and “Some Like it Hot” may have been the funniest movie ever made.

  4. Guy Nasuti says:

    I’m surprised that a historian of your calibre does not seem to enjoy movies much at all, especially war flicks! I wonder if there are other scholars out there that feel as you do. I don’t consider myself a scholar, but I am a movie buff, and I am probably one of the few people that regularly studies WWII history and actually enjoyed ‘Inglorious Basterds.’

    ‘Basterds’ had its faults, but I found it to be entertaining. It was strictly a revenge movie from beginning to end. It’s humor was often perverse, as war always is, but I enjoy the acting and dialogue of most of his movies. I think many historians sort of got their panties in a bunch because he took many absurd liberties with history, but I would argue he was the artist and that was his call. Did his movie have an overall message? I would argue that it did not, but I was engaged in the story and found myself laughing at things that usually I would not find that funny. I admit, I was entertained, and sometimes that is all a movie has to do. I did not go in expecting to see ‘Schindler’s List’ or ‘Come and See’ or a “big message” movie.

    On a bit of a heavier note, I have to take issue with a couple of comments in your article, especially the “there is nothing in the world sadder than photographs of POWs just after they’ve surrendered.” Sad yes, but I would argue that photographs of dead people, whether soldiers or civilians, from any nation, are much sadder. I would even argue that photographs of children during wartime often present some of the most sad and depressing images ever. I am a former navy photographer and photo editor of history magazines and have seen my share of war footage and photos and there is nothing, in my opinion, as sad as seeing what war does to innocent children whom find themselves in situations where they have to witness the depravities of war.

    Sorry to get a bit heavy there, but I just wanted to comment. Thanks for the great article.

  5. Rob Citino says:


    As I wrote, I know that not liking war movies is unusual in a historian. It’s just the way it is–one of my many character flaws :)

    Your second point is well taken: there are a LOT of sad photos taken during wartime. Tough to judge.

    FInally, on Inglourious Basterds, here’s the review I did in Variety. It was a phone interview that the editors formatted like a review. I think I was fair to the film.


    Thanks for the note!


    • Guy Nasuti says:

      Thank you for posting the review from Variety. I had not read it before and apologize if I seemed too harsh in my earlier post. You were very fair to the film, and I do hope you are able to get around to seeing some good war films. There are actually a few out there!

  6. Patrick Hays says:

    One needs to be carefull with movies since real facts do not actually make for a entertaining movie. Stalag 17 is a great movie and I think it shows how POW’s acted in their day to day exsitence. Wilder made the movie as egdie as the 1950’s culture allowed. I think that the character Joey, the emotional damaged POW was as far as the Hayes’ commission would let him go. There is nothing worse than a director rearranging facts to suit ther artistic vision.
    Dr Citino you should see Saving Private Ryan. It is the one movie that I know of that came with a warning about the combat scenes.

    • Allan Stevens says:

      Saving Private Ryan certainly had intense combat scenes, but overall, it really wasn’t all that good. It seemed Spielberg just wanted to include every possible situation in a movie. At times it was quite far-fetched, really. I’m not referring to the opening 20 minutes though.

      And it’s doubtful they would have sent soldiers form Omaha beach to search for a 101st trooper, who would’ve been dropped behind Utah beach some 20 miles away.

  7. Skip says:

    Favorite line: When the guy reading the letter from home learns that a baby has been dropped off on his wife’s doorstep and low and behold it has her eyes. “It could happen” I also like King Rat for POW movies

  8. Jacob DeWitt says:

    “If I ever run into any of you bums on a street corner, just let’s pretend we’ve never met before.”

    My favorite line in that movie.

    As far as good cinema goes, I think making a war movie presents more challenges than other genres.

    In any case, I find the ones my Dad and I watched when I was a kid, like Full Metal Jacket, Cross of Iron, or The Young Lions, are still my favorite.
    These movies aren’t history lessons, the directors are using a setting to develop a theme. Most war movies fail because the only theme they are pushing is that war is terrible, which is something we all should know. At any rate, All quite on the Western Front pushed that theme better than any movie since, and it came out in 1932.

    Maybe War Movies are like Westerns. It’s a genre you can only do so much with before you have to get weird to get a good story.

  9. Jean Deaux says:

    William Holden deserved an award.

    “We were playing Pinochle, it’s a rough game” – awesome

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