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William Holden, Model Prisoner

How the actor defined the ideal, postwar man

By David Lehman | January 14, 2020
From left to right, Don Taylor and William Holden in <em>Stalag 17</em>/Everett Collection
From left to right, Don Taylor and William Holden in Stalag 17/Everett Collection

William Holden, arguably the model for American men of his era, plays a prisoner of war in two major motion pictures. The Germans hold him and other American airmen captive in the close confines of Stalag 17 (1953), and in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), he sweats it out in a Japanese POW camp. In both movies, Holden’s character makes a daring, even miraculous, escape. His getaway happens at the very end of Stalag 17, but in The Bridge on the River Kwai, it marks the beginning of our hero’s adventures.

Both films were celebrated. Playing Sefton in Stalag 17, the cynical POW with the smarts to profit by bartering with the camp guards and running gambling schemes to fleece his fellow prisoners, Holden won the Academy Award for best leading actor. The Bridge on the River Kwai won eight Oscars, including those for best picture and best director.

To some extent, the repetition illustrates the success principle: if at first you succeed, try, try again. Nevertheless, if you identify Holden with the masculine ideal of the postwar years, the coincidence is too keen to overlook.

Aside from Holden and the POW camps, the contrast between the two movies is striking. Stalag 17 is a black-and-white studio production directed by Billy Wilder, whose other masterpieces include Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and Some Like It Hot. It’s set in late December 1944, and man, is it cold. References to Bastogne make it clear that the Battle of the Bulge is raging, and the Nazis are the enemy. The POW camp commandant (Otto Preminger) tells the prisoners they can forget about having a “White Christmas,” a song written, he says, “by one of your composers who stole his name from our capital” (Berlin). Later we hear “Jingle Bells” and “Adeste Fidelis” in the background.

To balance the surfeit of sentiment, we get the comic antics of two of the prisoners, Harry Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) and his friend the “Animal” (Robert Strauss). There is essentially one set: the barracks housing the American POWs. It’s easy to tell that a Broadway play preceded the movie.

At one point in Stalag 17, the men improvise a Christmas party by marching around the barracks singing “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again.” When a couple of guys in a makeshift band play the old Harlan Thompson and Harry Archer tune, “I Love You,” some of the boys pretend to be girls. As they dance, Harry Shapiro is the stand-in for the Animal’s adored Betty Grable. Once, when I dropped in on my Miami-based mother, then in her 80s, she was watching Stalag 17 on television and we watched that particular scene together. A sweet number, I thought, and wondered if Sinatra had recorded it. When I returned from Miami to New York, I listened to “I Love You” sung by Sinatra on a Capitol Records compilation. That was an amazing moment. I recommend you do the same if you want an object lesson in the difference between a pleasing rendition of a song and a masterly performance.

Clocking in at 161 minutes, 41 minutes longer than Stalag 17, The Bridge on the River Kwai was shot in vivid color on location in Sri Lanka. Directed by David Lean, whose other movies, similarly epic in scope and length, include Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, the film follows U.S. Navy Commander Shears (Holden), one of the very few men who have not succumbed to disease or the sadism of the camp commandant, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). It’s beastly hot, which gives the producers multiple chances to show William Holden without his shirt on: sweating as he digs a grave in the POW camp or sipping martinis as a free man on the beach. Here, the Japanese are the enemy and Allied victory does not yet seem inevitable.

In both movies, Holden displays great survival instincts, resourcefulness, guile, and the weary self-interest that Bogart expressed in Casablanca: “I stick my neck out for nobody.” He is very lucky, too, until his luck runs out. As Shears in The Bridge on the River Kwai, he manages to escape from the isolated prison camp that needed no gates or surveillance because there was no place to escape to—the camp is bordered by a steep promontory from which few would survive a jump or a fall.

In Stalag 17, Sefton is a one-man delicatessen, selling all manner of goods to the other fellows, who know he is hoarding and profiting at their expense. The camp hotheads, like Duke (Neville Brand) and Price (Peter Graves), believe he is the traitor who tipped off the Nazis about the planned escape of two prisoners, who were killed in their attempt. After getting beaten up, Sefton decides to sleuth out who the real traitor is.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is marked by extraordinary plot reversals, most prominently the battle of wills between Colonel Nicholson (brilliantly played by Alec Guinness), the British officer in nominal charge of his defeated troops, and Colonel Saito, the Japanese camp commander. The POWs are expected to build a bridge for Japanese troop and supply trains. Citing the Geneva Convention, the British colonel refuses to let his officers work alongside the enlisted men. It is a matter of principle and he refuses to compromise. But once he is set free from the brutal solitary confinement to which Colonel Saito condemns him—once he has triumphed in the battle of egos and abstractions—he reverses himself entirely, throwing himself and his officers (and even some of the sick men in the infirmary) into the effort to build the bridge.

The movie’s second major reversal is that Commander Shears must return to the infernal place from which he had escaped. British Major Warden (Jack Hawkins), a polymathic Cambridge don and skillful bombmaker who heads the “rather rum group called Force 316,” conscripts Shears into a commando raid designed to blow up the bridge, and is able to do so because Shears isn’t really Shears. He switched uniforms and identities with an officer of higher rank killed in action near him, and the U.S. military is only too happy to lend him to the Brits. The identity switch points to an ambiguity in the character and make-up of our hero. Who is he, exactly? What is his real name? The film’s reticence about Shears’s background, education, occupation, and family is noteworthy. If in Stalag 17, Sefton is alone in the barracks, ostracized by his fellows, in The Bridge on the River Kwai, it’s as if Shears were alone in the world.

Shears is a stoic and a fatalist. When he realizes he has no choice but to do as the British major demands, he says, “Well, as long as I’m hooked, I might as well volunteer.” He is told he will have the rank of “simulated major.” There won’t be enough time for parachute practice, so in Major Warden’s view “the most sensible thing for Major Shears to do is to go ahead and jump, and hope for the best.” To which Shears replies: “With or without parachute?”

In Stalag 17, too, he is a loner, aggressively asserting his individuality in a context of maximum regimentation. “Brother, were we all wet about you!” Duke says after Sefton unmasks the Nazi spy. To which the unsentimental Sefton replies “Forget it!” and lights his cigar from a match he strikes on Duke’s stubble.

In each movie, Holden says something that communicates his capacity for irony and irreverence, as well as his distaste for the boyish conception of war as a “game.” In The Bridge on the River Kwai, Shears says to Warden: “You and Colonel Nicholson, you’re two of a kind, crazy with courage. For what? How to die like a gentleman, how to die by the rules—when the only important thing is how to live like a human being.” In Stalag 17, he offers this wonderful parting shot: “If I ever run into any of you bums on a street corner, just let’s pretend we’ve never met before.”

The slam-bang conclusion of The Bridge on the River Kwai is magnificent, and I shall say nothing more about it here except to reveal that the movie’s last word is “madness!” At the end of Stalag 17, Sefton takes wire-cutters to cut through the barbed wire, rescue a lieutenant the Germans want to kill, and guide the two of them to freedom. Duke: “The crud did it.” Harry Shapiro: “I’d like to know what made him do it.” Animal: “Maybe he just wanted to steal our wire cutters. Ever think of that?”

The American male ideal as William Holden personified it is, then, a handsome, heroic prisoner of circumstances beyond his control. He seems to have taken to heart the advice Polonius gives to his son in Hamlet: “Beware / Of entrance to a quarrel; but being in, / Bear’t that th’ opposed may beware of thee.” It’s too bad that Holden’s studio failed to acquire film rights to Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. Holden would have made a great Philip Marlowe, as Eddie Muller has pointed out on TCM’s Noir Alley. When asked about Holden’s real life dedication to endangered species, Billy Wilder said, “What he didn’t realize was that he was himself an endangered species.”

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