William Holden in

The Third Golden Boy Blogathon

Welcome to the Third Golden Boy Blogathon: A William Holden Centenary Celebration hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema, The Flapper Dame and Love Letters to Old Hollywood Previously, I covered Holden’s Asia adventures in the post Our Man in the Orient. This time out, Holden returns to Southeast Asia in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), directed by David Lean [Lawrence of Arabia (1962)].

Based on a novel by Pierre Boule, the wide-screen, Technicolor epic is, on the surface, an action adventure story about British prisoners forced to build a railway bridge for the Japanese. It’s also an allegorical look at obsession with the psychological duel between Japanese Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) and  British Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness).

Shears (Holden) is one of the prisoners, a lone American separated from his unit.

Even though he’s identified himself as a Naval officer, Shears projects the image of a wise-cracking regular guy and runs into conflict with the ramrod straight, well spoken Colonel Nicholson who’s put into a solitary hot box for his principles. Shears puts self-preservation ahead of grand ideals.

A restored DCP screened at the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival and looked magnificent on the Chinese Theatre’s giant screen. From the festival notes: “Producer Sam Spiegel gave the script to two blacklisted American writers, Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, even though he had to credit Boulle with the screenplay. After approaching American giants like John Ford and Howard Hawks, he brought on David Lean, marking the British director’s transition from small personal films to epic productions. Spiegel had the POW who escapes to lead an assault on the bridge changed to an American allowing them to cast William Holden.” Foreman and Wilson were finally credited in 1984.

Holden was perfectly cast as Shears. His delivery of Shears’ world weary, sarcastic dialogue is sharp and funny, especially in the way the American contrasts with his British counterparts. Holden’s acting style is naturalistic and likewise, his physique appears earned the old-fashioned way, with physical labor rather than from hours spent at the gym.

Shears miraculously escapes and with the help of Thai villagers, including an especially attractive guide, he winds up at a British Commando training camp. The problem for Shears is that he’s overstated his rank. The Brits figure it out and pressure him into returning to the camp to blow up the bridge. Now in détente with Saito, Nicholson has turned the bridge into his personal project and sees it as a testament to British ingenuity and superiority. Is it a morale booster for his troops or collaboration with the enemy? The camp doctor (James Donald) tries to warn him, but he’s having none of it. 

Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) and his Commandos expected fierce opposition from the Japanese. They weren’t expecting that a British Colonel would be the one standing in their way.

12 thoughts on “William Holden in

  1. I swear Bill is the essential American POW on film- and he plays it so perfectly- as both movies have Oscars attributed to them! I must give this one another chance- maybe I just wasn’t in the proper mood?
    Thank YOU so Much for writing about this movie and sharing your love of Mr Holden!

    • Thanks for hosting! Yes, I forgot about STALAG 17. Thanks for showing the medallion to Audrey in your post. Very sweet and sentimental in contrast to his tough guy image in this film.

  2. I’m a little shamed to admit I haven’t seen this film yet. To be honest, I’d like my first viewing to be on the big screen — it just seems like that kind of film. (Ditto Lawrence of Arabia.) Still, I enjoyed your post! Thanks for joining our blogathon!

    • Thanks for hosting! If you can see either on the big screen it’s well worth it, especially now with restorations. I’ve read that the 4K looks great but I haven’t gotten that advanced yet.

  3. Wow it must be quite worthy indeed to see this film on big screen! I highly enjoyed you great piece on this iconic film! I must admit I have seen it a long time ago and at the time I wasn’t a fan of Bill (shame on me) but you definitely make me want to see it asap a second time! I appreciate how you understand the “essence” of Bill and the quality he brought to this film. Even if I don’t remember everything about it, I have to say that one of my favourite shots is movie history is one of William Holden in this film! Thanks so much for your participation to the blogathon! 🙂

    • Thanks again Virginie for hosting and creating the Golden Boy Blogathon! Yes, seeing a spectacle like this on the big screen is great, but the performances are so strong they come through on with home viewing, as well.

  4. I saw it (“River Kwai”) at a revival on the big screen. The only way to view it. The shadows of thousands of bats in the jungle is lost on anything but the big screen. A masterpiece. Everyone in it, including Holden, is great.

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