It shouldn't be difficult for movie audiences today to appreciate William Holden's charm and manly force on the screen. After all, Tom Hanks, whose career has come to resemble Holden's not just in the kind of parts he's taken (and in what order), possesses essentially the same kinds of actor-character traits, which may be proof that the older Hollywood action-drama movie-formula--featuring a capable but reluctant average Joe as the heavy--when carefully done--can still appeal to mass audiences. That's what occurred to me when I saw Saving Private Ryan  while visiting Victoria, BC in 1998.
Stalag 17 , a classic prison-camp movie (a sub-genre of the prison movie of the 1930's and 1940's), combines elements of escape, loyalty and betrayal, situation comedy, and wartime distress, into a tightly knit, fast-paced series of set-piece scenes, each perfectly shot and realized.
The contrast between Sefton's cigar-chewing cynicism, and the cardboard gallantry of Lt. Dunbar (an Ivy League commissioned prig), a new arrival at the camp who has information crucial to the Allied cause and hence needs to be freed a/s/a/p, is made graphically apparent in their joint escape attempt. The similarity between this role, and that which Holden played in The Bridge On the River Kwai, is obvious: In each case, an American soldier more interested in his own plight, is discovered capable--when the chips are down and there's no way out--of heroism and selfless courage, against his natural inclination. This "reluctant warrior" concept is central to the myth of the American soldier profile, so often repeated in movies and literature. In a capitalist society, self-interest and hustle are admirable traits, but in a military situation, requiring obedience and loyalty to the group, these traits become ambiguous.