Golden Holden is definitely my favorite actor. I’ve seen 30 of his films, the most of anyone from both classic and present day Hollywood. I’m also a proud member of the William Holden fanclub, whose members include Barbara Stanwyck (founder), Billy Wilder (president), Audrey Hepburn, and Glenn Ford.
I’ve always been interested in William Holden’s unique career trajectory; from his slightly awkward, yet affecting film debut, to his later self assured screen image. And you know something, I love it all. I love seeing him in the early 40s to the mid 50s, every bit of it.
“Ah, William Holden. Already we need you again. Already the fabric is wearing thin without you.”
I often find myself reading certain things and wishing I had written them. While that line from Walker Percy does inspire ‘writer envy’ in me, it also perfectly encapsulates the very essence of William Holden onscreen. Nowhere is this particular sentiment more true than in The Bridge on the River Kwai.
I will admit, I was never keen on watching this nearly three hour war epic. But, William Holden! He should have been all the reason I needed, and he was. But the length, subject matter, and lots of distractions prevented me from ever sitting through it. Not for lack of trying though. Alec Guinness was the lead, but William Holden received top billing because he was the bigger box office draw. Guinness was nominated for and subsequently won the Oscar for Best Actor. The film actually won six additional Oscars; Best Film Editing, Best Music (Scoring), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Director (David Lean), and Best Picture.
The fact that the film screamed OSCAR BAIT also factored in my avoidance of it. And there was my own misconception that it was an overblown, overlong war film. And if Bill Holden wasn’t the “real star”, maybe his role wasn’t substantial enough. But surprisingly, it was. Bill’s role and onscreen image are absolutely crucial in examining what the film has to say about war. Ah, William Holden.
The year is 1943. In the Burmese jungle, where the heat crackles on the air, there is a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Two soldiers with gleaming, sun-beaten torsos are burying a third soldier. One of the soldiers, an American, gives an impromptu and slightly flippant eulogy before the cross is driven into the earth. The American bribes one of the guards with a cigarette lighter he’s taken from the corpse so he and his companion can be placed on the sick list. This is not the first time bribery has worked either. The American is called Shears (Holden).
Meanwhile, a new company of prisoners has just arrived at the camp, all of them whistling the now classic Colonel Bogey march.
When this new company of British soldiers is addressed by the POW commandant, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), they are informed that all prisoners are responsible for building a bridge for the Japanese railway into India. Colonel Nicholson (Guinness) reminds Saito that military officers are forbidden from performing manual labor, as outlined in the Geneva Convention. Saito sneers at Nicholson’s mention of it, but the latter believes he can be reasoned with.
When Nicholson meets Commander Shears, he learns that he is a shipwrecked naval officer and that many of the soldiers have died from disease or just plain exhaustion from living. What’s that timeless adage? War is hell. Later on that night, Nicholson and his men are talking with Shears about escaping from the camp, which Nicholson believes is futile. His company was actually ordered to surrender at Singapore, so an escape could be seen as an infraction of the law. Shears, bewildered, asks Nicholson if he intends to uphold the law.
But what Nicholson doesn’t realize is that there is neither civilization nor law, not least because Saito won’t recognize either. Nicholson is adamant that his men be treated as soldiers, captured soldiers, yes, but not slaves. It’s a noble appeal to their dignity as enlisted men. Shears is ready with a sardonic quip. “I hope they can remain soldiers, Colonel. As for me, I’m just a slave, a living slave.”
The following day, Nicholson reads a passage from the Geneva Convention about officers being exempt from manual labor. Saito, worked up into a cold fury, slaps Nicholson across the face with the book. This is such a great scene with lots of insight into the characters of both men. Though stunned when Saito strikes him, Nicholson remains calm and does nothing. He is the perpetually unruffled English gentleman while Saito is prone to angry outbursts. Nicholson rarely displays emotions while Saito at one point breaks down into anguished tears when he is alone. Saito exclaims “I hate the British!”, so angered by Nicholson, and all the latter responds with is: “Pointless for us to continue on like this.”
Nicholson is eventually imprisoned in a metal box called the oven, broiling in that relentless sun, nearly starving, yet adamant that his officers will not work as ‘coolies’. To him it is a matter of principles and he has dug his heels in. The army doctor tries to reason with both men to no avail. Nicholson is firm but polite in his refusal, while Saito rages.
By now you might be thinking, just build the damn bridge already. But that is an oversimplification of just what is at stake. Nicholson demands that the convention is honored, because if officers perform manual labor, they lose respect. The bridge’s construction rests on a deadline, and if it’s not completed in time, Saito will have to commit suicide. His predicament invites no sympathy from Nicholson. This is a matter of pride for both men, so unlike in temperament, yet terribly similar in their unyielding attitude.
Construction does start once Saito gives in. No officers will be employed in manual labor. But Nicholson sees the construction of the bridge as a personal crusade. What better way to boost the morale of his troops than by building a much greater bridge than even the Japanese had envisioned? The bridge will be a glorious symbol of British ingenuity.
“We can teach these barbarians a lesson in Western methods and efficiency that will put them to shame. We’ll show them what the British soldier is capable of doing.”
Is it any wonder that Saito hates the British?
Nicholson wants to rouse his men from their torpor of shoddy and ineffectual work on the bridge, a mark of patriotism and maddening Western superiority. And it’s a sign of his own latent ego.
Now where in the world has top billed William Holden got to? Shears has actually managed to escape. Two other soldiers attempting to escape were killed. Shears is the outsider in a literal sense because he’s away from the camp, and in essence, the war itself. Dehydrated, frail, and looking very much like John the Baptist in the desert, he’s rescued by some villagers. After helping him regain his health, they send him on his way again, down the river.
That one revelation just made everything click. By everything I mean Shears’ characterization as well as the type of character William Holden embodied. He didn’t always play a cynic with morally ambiguous motives, but when he did, he did it exceptionally well. It started with Sunset Blvd. (1950), his first collaboration with Billy Wilder. In that film he plays Joe Gillis, a jaded screenwriter who agrees to be a gigolo to a faded and deluded silent film star, played by Gloria Swanson. He can get something out of that arrangement, namely money, clothes, and a comfortable existence. In Stalag 17 (1953), my favorite film of his, he’s J.J. Sefton, a POW just like Shears. And just like Shears, he bribes those in charge to get what he wants, lives as comfortably as possible in a POW camp, and works the system to his own advantage. Besides the fact that Gillis, Sefton, and Shears are cynics who inhabit a morally gray landscape, their status as outsiders connects them too. Gillis is an outsider in Hollywood because he’s unable to find success. Sefton is an outsider in his camp because all the other soldiers resent him and suspect he’s a traitor. And Shears is the outsider who’s loyal to one cause only: himself.
“You make me sick with your heroics. […] You and that 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! I’m not going to leave you here to die, Warden, because I don’t care about your bridge, and I don’t care about your rules.”
Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant were both considered for the role of Shears. But neither of them could play him like Bill did. Bogie was more than capable of playing the loner who didn’t stick out his neck for anyone, but he didn’t ooze charm. The rare times I’ve seen Bogie smile onscreen, there’s been menace behind his teeth. Shears’ smile is meant to be winning; the fact that he uses it on another man is amazing. And Cary was too urbane to be in the jungle, and I can’t really picture him as a likable heel.
The Bridge on the River Kwai ultimately rejects war and the illusion of honor and dying with honor. In the end, no one dies with honor. In the end, the fever pitch of war crescendos into violent destruction. No one can justify it. Madness and desperation infect men no matter what side they’re fighting on, no matter how much they attempt to escape. I definitely recommend this film and its criticism of certain dearly held ideals. It also functions as a fascinating character study of two men who are brilliantly portrayed by Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa.
And in the midst of it is William Holden as the antihero turned reluctant would be hero.
In the film’s devastating conclusion, a horror struck Nicholson recognizes Shears and his own mad devotion to the damn bridge – his beloved bridge. And suddenly, Walker Percy’s words ring out clearer than before.
Ah, William Holden. Already we need you again. Already the fabric is wearing thin without you.