Plot: As the movie opens, the narrator says that the movies he has seen about WWII are about “flyboys” in leather jackets, and do not reflect his own experience as an American prisoner of war in a German Stalag (prison camp). This is that story.
Sefton (William Holden) is a cynical loner who bets (successfully) that his fellow prisoners will fail in their attempt to escape. He manages to scrounge or trade for many small luxuries, including a bar of soap and an egg. When the others show their contempt, he says, “So maybe I trade a little sharper. Does that make me a collaborator?” and sums up his philosphy, “This is everybody for himself, dog eat dog…You can be the heroes, the guys with fruit salad on your chest. Me, I’m staying put, and I’m going to make myself as comfortable as I can, and if it takes trading with the enemy to get me some food or a better mattress, that’s okay with Sefton.”
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 is in the barracks 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. He tells them that two people know he is not the one who is telling the Germans their secrets — Sefton himself and the one who is really doing it. Sefton starts to watch 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, telling the others that the risk of escaping has been outweighed by the chance at a reward from Dunbar’s family.
Discussion: This is an exceptionally exciting drama, based on a play by two men who were prisoners in Stalag 17. Holden’s superb performance won a Best Actor Oscar , and the rest of the cast, some who were also in the Broadway play, is 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. A former Communist bloc comedian once said that every joke is a “tiny revolution.” Here, when all control over their lives is taken from them, the prisoners try to establish some sense of control with jokes and pranks, and again, we see that, as W.H. Auden said, “a laugh is less heartless than tears” (see “Sullivan’s Travels”).
Examine the other strategies and responses the prisoners had to adapt to their circumstances. Sefton adapted by trying to make whatever small improvements to his life that he could, helping him to 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. Joey plays an ocarina, and becomes completely withdrawn. Interestingly, the camp commandant, Von Sherbach (Otto Preminger), a ruthless man, is nevertheless shown as feeling his own loss of control, because he has been assigned to the backwater of the war effort. He hopes that identifying Dunbar as the one who blew up the train will bring him to the attention of those who may move him to something more prestigious.
Sefton is interesting (the narrator says he would fit into one of the Reader’s Digest series about the “most unforgettable character”) 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, and hostile. In his last words to the group as he leaves to rescue Dunbar, he says that if they should ever run into him after the war, to pretend they don’t know him. When he says he is motivated by the prospect of a reward, we believe him. Heroes are just as complicated as everyone else, possibly more so.
This movie also provides an opportunity to talk about justice and fairness. 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”).
Questions for Kids:
· 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?
Connections: Other outstanding movies about prisoners of war include “The Great Escape.” “The Rack” stars Paul Newman as a soldier accused of treason following his release from a Korean prison camp.