The Reel Infatuation Blogathon: Sgt. J.J. Sefton of Stalag 17
When I learned that Silver Screenings and Font and Frock were hosting a blogathon about favorite silver screen crushes, I was on board like a sailor after a weekend pass. (Or something like that. You know what I mean.)
Why was I so excited about this particular event? Because several years ago, I wrote a book entitled Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir, and one of the chapters was devoted to actor William Holden. While I was immersing myself in Holden’s life and career, I totally found myself falling head over heels for him – I mean, I was completely obsessed! I started scouring eBay for pictures of the actor, watching every Holden movie that aired on TV, and tapping all of my resources for copies of every Holden film that I didn’t already own. It was kinda crazy – but fun! Like every fire, my intense fixation on William Holden eventually died down to a few burning embers and, finally, to cooling ash, but while it was still raging, boy, was it hot!
I’m taking a rare detour today from the worlds of pre-Code and film noir to shine the spotlight on the one William Holden character who most sparks my interest, lights my fuse, and just plain butters my biscuit: Sgt. J.J. Sefton in Stalag 17 (1953).
This Billy Wilder-written-and-directed feature tells the story of a group of American airmen, held captive during WWII in a German prisoner of war camp located “somewhere on the Danube.” The film follows the day-to-day existence of the men housed in Barracks Number 4, their never-ending efforts to subvert their captors, and their growing suspicions that one of their number is an informant. And it just so happens that the suspected stoolie is none other than J.J. Sefton. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The film opens as the prisoners are finalizing an intricately planned scheme for two of the men to make an escape and head for neutral territory in Switzerland. They’ve got their parcel of necessities at the ready, they’ve reviewed and re-reviewed every step, and every one of their fellow prisoners is filled with the kind of hopeful confidence that is best known to those in the most desperate situations – every one, that is, except J.J. Sefton, who sardonically interjects: “Once in Switzerland, just give out with a big yodel so we’ll know you’re there. It’s a breeze,” he says, as he coolly lights his ever-present cigar. “Just one question: did you calculate the risk?”
It’s a perfect introduction to this character, as we witness, in just a few seconds, Sefton’s nonchalant cynicism and his obvious indifference for how he’s regarded by others. More keys to his persona are offered up when, after the men depart, Sefton actually takes bets on whether they will make it to their destination, with Sefton wagering packs of cigarettes that they won’t. In this scene, we learn even more about Sefton: he operates a kind of black market enterprise within the camp, making strategic trades with his German captives to secure all sorts of desired goodies, including cigars, silk stockings, even bottles of wine. And the operation is supervised by Sefton’s sidekick (and the only one of the prisoners who doesn’t dislike him), a young airman with a slight stutter who goes by the name of Cookie (Gil Stratton).
Now, after this brief introduction to Sefton, you might be wondering what on earth could I possibly find attractive about him – how could I have a crush on such a shamelessly self-absorbed gent? Well, sometimes in the movies, just as in real life, you have to look beneath the surface. (Although, speaking of surfaces, I must say that even with an unshaven face and slightly grubby t-shirt, Sefton is no slouch in the looks department, if you get my drift. Hubba hubba! Sorry – I digress.) For instance, not long after the table in the barracks is covered with loose cigarettes from the men betting in favor of their comrades’ success, a volley of automatic gunfire apprises them that, sadly, the two didn’t get very far. Sefton doesn’t speak, but just before he starts gathering up his winnings, he tosses away his cigar butt and stares briefly but stoically at the floor in a way that tells us he’s feeling a lot more than he’s letting on.
Don’t get me wrong, though – Sefton’s ooey, gooey soft center is seldom on display. Instead, more often than not, Sefton is either cheekily responding to the other men’s growing suspicions that he is an informant, or gaily enjoying such black market spoils as a bar of soap or a fresh egg, or boldly rationalizing his unique point of view: “The first week I was in this joint, somebody stole my Red Cross package, my blanket, and my left shoe,” he says. “Well, since then, I’ve wised up. This ain’t no Salvation Army – this is everybody for himself. Dog eat dog.”
Sefton’s hard-nosed outlook aside, you can’t help but admire his intelligence and sense of enterprise, as evidenced by a “horse” race he operated every Saturday and Sunday night, charging the men cigarettes to place their bets. Sefton, we learn, was the “presiding steward, the chief handicapper, the starter, the judge, the breeder, and his own bookie.” And, we further learn, the “horses” were mice, who raced three laps around a track constructed from wood and cardboard. Sefton also ran a bar, featuring hooch made from old potato peels and string, and set up an “observatory” that allowed the men – for a fee, of course – to gaze into the nearby Russian women’s compound. Oh, he was a wily one; how can I not be charmed by such bold resourcefulness and boundless creativity?
Another selling point for Sefton? His bravado in the face of certain peril. Due to purely circumstantial evidence, the men of Barracks Number 4 finally become convinced beyond all doubt that Sefton is a stoolpigeon. (Heck, even I might have thought him guilty if I weren’t in the throes of a major crush!) First, Sefton is seen leaving the barracks with a bottle of wine, a carton of cigarettes, and a pair of silk stockings. Next thing you know, one of the German sergeants enters the barracks and knows exactly where to find a pilfered radio the men have hidden in a bucket. Things get even more hairy when a newly arrived American lieutenant is detained for his involvement in an incident that was only known to the men of Barracks 4. So when Sefton returns, he faces the silent, accusatory glares from 25 fellow POWs, each of whom is certain that he’s been selling their secrets to the Germans. But Sefton doesn’t miss a beat. “Hi. Too late for chow?” he asks casually, looking each man in the eye as he takes off his jacket. “What’s the matter – is my slip showing?” Later, all joviality aside, he tells the others straight out: they’ve got the wrong guy – but when they refuse to believe him, and move in to administer a vicious beating, Setfton accepts his fate with steely, unfaltering resolve. And there’s something mighty sexy about a man who can take punishment without complaint. (Also, I don’t mind saying that even with a black eye and a busted cheek, Sefton’s still got the stuff!)
But Sefton’s silent acquiescence doesn’t equal to surrender – not by a long shot. He’s now determined to find out who the real informant is – and believe me when I tell you that his righteous fury is just as appealing as his good-humored insolence: “There’re two guys in this barracks that know I didn’t do it. Me and the guy that did do it,” Sefton tells the other prisoners. “And he better watch out, the guy that left me holding the stick.” It doesn’t take Sefton long, just by being quietly observant and using the old noodle, to figure out which of his comrades is the real stoolie. In case you’ve never seen the movie, I won’t spoil it by revealing the man’s name, but I will tell you this: the scene where Sefton exposes the informant is absolutely riveting – not to mention completely swoon-worthy. He doesn’t just come right out and call the mole by name; first, he toys with him a bit, like a masochistic cat with a cowering mouse – and then he delivers a rapid-fire triple slap to the guy’s face that would’ve made Humphrey Bogart proud. I tell you, I can watch that scene over and over, and it’ll leave me breathless every time.
I guess I don’t have to tell you that this cynical, self-serving, irreverent gent turns out to be the hero of the film – and I’m here to tell you that Sgt. J.J. Sefton (we never do find out what those Js are for!) is one of the most fascinating heroes this side of Atticus Finch. Handsome and charming, intelligent and inventive, brave, shrewd and quick-witted – with a heaping helping of just-don’t-give-a-damn that makes him undeniably, indisputably desirable. Yowza!
But get your own fella, ladies. This one’s taken.
This post is part of the Reel Infatuation Blogathon, hosted by Silver Screenings and Font and Frock. Click on the banner below and treat yourself by reading about the crushes of the other blogathon participants!