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.