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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